My Own Private Idaho
Directed by Gus Van Sant — 1991, US — 104 minutes, color or black & white, aspect ratio 1.xx:1 — Drama
IN BRIEF, two young hustlers, from very different background, learn who they are during a fateful road trip from Oregon to Idaho.
My Own Private Idaho is one of those rare pictures which not only struck me profoundly on a first viewing the weekend it opened in 1991 – I laughed and wept many times – but which has haunted me ever since. This visually sublime film about the quest of two young street hustlers to find the meaning of home, not to mention love, is funny, moving, wise, and at times deeply strange. Even before re-seeing the film in its exceptional new DVD release, I sometimes used to flash on images, lines of dialogue (both Van Sant’s own and the bits he brilliantly, and unpretentiously, lifts from Shakespeare’s Henry IV), or entire scenes, like the heartbreaking campfire talk between the River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves characters. Below is a comparison of a scene from Shakespeare and the parallel scene in this film.
My Own Private Idaho is arguably the single best work, to date, from Gus Van Sant, one of the most original and visionary of today’s filmmakers. His pictures are always recognizably his own, whether it’s a tightly-crafted blockbuster like Good Will Hunting or a disturbingly beautiful work like the experimental Elephant, his fictionalization of the Columbine massacre which took the grand prize and best director award at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. My Own Private Idaho draws eclectically on many different sources – from mythology, literature, cinema, painting, music – to create a work which is at once deeply personal and, in its depiction of unrequited love, universal. It is one of the best films of the 1990s and a landmark of LGBTQ cinema. Made for just $2.5 million (one-tenth the cost of an average Hollywood movie then), it grossed $15 million and solidified the careers of Van Sant, Reeves, and Phoenix; Van Sant and Phoenix also won several awards (National Society of Film Critics, Independent Spirit, the festivals at Deauville, Toronto, Venice, and more), as did several other crew members. This film has long been at the top of my ‘wish list’ for DVDeification, and the wait has proven most worthwhile. The Criterion Collection’s superb two-disc Special Edition includes both a director-approved high-definition transfer and a wealth of exceptional supplemental materials, ranging from five hours of original documentaries to a 64-page booklet of interviews and essays. If you haven’t yet seen My Own Private Idaho, you are in for a very special experience. And if you have, you can enjoy the film even more by exploring it through the many extra features included in this definitive set.
My Own Private Idaho tells the sometimes hilarious, always poignant, tale of two young male prostitutes living in modern Oregon. Primarily it’s the coming of age story of Mike Waters (River Phoenix, Running on Empty), who falls asleep in a narcoleptic fit whenever emotions become too raw, as they often do. His best friend, and the one he loves, is Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix trilogy), who is sowing his very wild oats before assuming the duties befitting the son of Portland’s mayor. Mike and Scott are part of a merry, and sometimes scary, band of hustlers, junkies and thieves presided over by the grizzled, larger-than-life figure of Bob Pigeon (William Richert, director of Winter Kills). After some hair-raising adventures (one john gets his kicks by having Mike dress up in a skimpy apron, ordering him to “Scrub, Little Dutch Boy! Scrub!” – while Mike frantically cleans a kitchen), Scott joins his friend on a quest to track down Mike’s mother, who abandoned him as a child. Along the way, they are followed by a crazy German businessman named Hans (Udo Kier, Andy Warhol’s Dracula), find Mike’s brother Richard (James Russo, Extremities) even as the Waters family’s darkest secrets come out, wind up in Italy with the beguiling Carmella (Chiara Caselli), and return to Portland to find their world changed forever.
Few films open with such a one–two punch. After holding on a skewed angle of a dictionary, with the definition for narcolepsy highlighted against a shadowy background, Van Sant cuts from this third-person point of view to a first-person one: Mike’s vision, as he drifts into a narcoleptic sleep along an endless road through the Idaho wilderness. The dreamlike quality is reinforced by Mike’s halting but eloquent voice-over narration: “I just know I’ve been here before… There’s not another road that looks exactly like this one…” We see a surreally beautiful but slightly menacing landscape (there’s a hint of Hitchcock’s terrifying wide-open-spaces “crop duster” sequence in North by Northwest) with many of the nature shots made more strange by the use of time-lapse (sped-up) photography, not to mention the interspersed credits. We see rolling plains, a jackrabbit (as it scampers off, Mike yells, “We’re stuck here together, you shit.”), clouds lowering with a crack of thunder, a snow-capped mountain, memories of his mother cradling him in her arms and saying “Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be all right… I know you’re sorry,” an isolated old farm house (from his memory), an object shooting horizontally across a blood-red sunset, a giant cartoon-cowboy statue, leaping salmon, a skewed tight close-up of Mike in REM sleep, a tranquil lake – while we hear a dissonant “modern” guitar riff segue into a scratchy old LP of cowboy Eddie Arnold singing the forlorn “Cattle Call.” Suddenly a barn comes hurtling out of the sky, crashing to pieces on the road (which reminds us of The Wizard of Oz even as it undercuts the reference: there are no magic ruby sleepers to take Mike “home” here) – cut to a tubby john, in a sleazy hotel room, finishing a blow job on Mike, then throwing a wad of cash at his crotch (moments later, we find out that Walt isn’t quite such a heartless jerk). As shocking as such raunchiness was in 1991, it was even more so because Mike was played by then-teen-idol River Phoenix (you can almost still hear echoes of teenagers shrieking in horror).
On one level, this opening lets Van Sant tip his hat that he knows that for some viewers “money shots” of “River” and “Keanu” (and there are quite a few) are enough. But for others, or perhaps even those viewers at different points in their lives, he gives much, much more. Stylistically, Van Sant has already introduced all of the film’s major devices: extreme close-ups juxtaposed with extreme wide shots, time-lapse visual effects, flashbacks, eclectic music, revisionist movie allusions, the strange beauty and struggle of nature contrasted with the funny-but-sad sleaziness of urban life, and Mike’s beguiling voice-overs with their street-wise yet philosophical tone. We also see Mike’s (intermittent) power over the film itself, as he literally makes the camera iris in on two shrubs, on either side of the road, so that we can see the shape of what he calls a “fucked-up face” in the landscape (you know, he’s right). His viewpoint often, but not always, parallels the film’s larger perspective. Van Sant establishes all of this in the opening moments which, miraculously, come across as natural and (perhaps despite my description here) completely unpretentious. And as the film progresses, he moves from radically diverse particulars to nothing less than a healing, unified vision of life. This is a lot for a movie about two rent-boys to bear, but part of Van Sant’s genius is not only his electrifying ability to draw connections between superficially unrelated, yet deeply connected, phenomena (as we will see), but his gift for finding the essence, the heart, of things, and letting us share in that vision. I am totally drawn into this film, from first shot to last.
This groundbreaking work was only Van Sant’s third feature, after the award-winning, but ultra-low-budget, gay drama Mala Noche (1985), about a poor liquor store clerk who falls in love with a migrant worker, and the critical and commercial hit, Drugstore Cowboy (1989), which shocked and enthralled audiences with its depiction of a “family” of junkies, led by actor Matt Dillon (Over the Edge, 1979) in his finest performance, and featuring legendary gay Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, published 1959). Van Sant, the son of a wealthy garment industry executive, had studied painting and filmmaking at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, from 1971–75; his classmates included David Byrne and other members of the band Talking Heads. After graduating, Van Sant shot commercials for a Madison Avenue ad agency, and later directed music videos for such pop stars as Elton John, David Bowie, Traci Chapman, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (their bassist, Flea, in this film plays the hustler named Budd, Bob’s constant companion).
My Own Private Idaho both looks back to Van Sant’s first two features – in its narrative focus on often gay outsiders, as well as such visual effects as bursts of image and sound and time-lapse effects – and ahead to his later pictures, both commercial and personal. For Hollywood, he made the widely-panned feminist road comedy/drama Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993; from Tom Robbins’s cult novel); the brilliant black comedy To Die For (1995; written by Buck Henry, screenwriter of The Graduate, and featuring Nicole Kidman in her first great performance, playing a homicidal TV weather forecaster); the powerful and beautifully-made drama Good Will Hunting (1997; about a teenage mathematical genius (Matt Damon, star and Oscar-winning co-screenwriter) who works as a janitor MIT; the uninvolving Psycho (1998; this is not a “shot-for-shot” remake of Hitchcock’s film, since there are countless differences, from the gross – Norman Bates masturbating while he peeps at Marion Crane undressing – to the super-subtle, with slight changes in compositions, as well as the pervasive variations of Van Sant’s favorite color, green, in what was originally a black and white film: still, the movie is so lifeless that who wants to spend time comparing each shot to the original masterpiece?); and the glossy Sean Connery vehicle, Finding Forrester (2000; with a remarkable debut performance by young David Brown, as a poor African-American writing prodigy who befriends a reclusive “great author,” but a script so full of plot holes that it belongs to what I call the Swiss Cheese School of Screenwriting). Happily, Van Sant’s latest films are his most intensely personal in over a decade: the enigmatic Gerry (2002; about two young men lost in a desert) and Elephant (2003), with their endless yet mesmerizing tracking shots, are difficult but extremely rewarding. And like this film, Gerry and Elephant contain dozens of images and scenes which I cannot get out of my head (that’s a compliment, of course).
y Own Private Idaho also connects, in many ways, with a broader tradition not only of cinema but of literature, and more, even as it offers insights into American society, both high and low, and with its kaleidoscope of contradictions: artistic, socio-economic, even sexual. As Van Sant once remarked, “America has a certain culture that’s always reverting or trying to figure out where it comes from.” He draws on many different sources for this film, from some of cinema’s greatest artists like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, as well as Hollywood Westerns, road movies, New German Cinema and more, to mythology, Shakespeare and Whitman, not to mention the broader traditions of gay cinema and literature (all links are to resources at this site). Yet with all of these recognizable antecedents, miraculously My Own Private Idaho emerges – as we will see – as a deeply personal and original work. Let me mention that while Van Sant comes across as an extremely warm, likeable and unpretentious person, we can only guess how much he consciously and/or unconsciously came to terms with such a dense web of earlier literary and cinematic influences. Each of us must, of course, decide for ourselves how successful Van Sant has been; but for me, not only does My Own Private Idaho seem one of the most distinctive, and moving, films of the past twenty years, it also provides a rich new perspective for re-reading and re-viewing the seminal works which it incorporates, from road movies to Shakespeare, Welles, and much more. Of course, this film is emphatically not just fodder for footnote-hunters (although I am guilty of that big time, albeit to a larger purpose, as you will see); and if this review helps you enjoy My Own Private Idaho more, well, imagine that “happy face” which Van Sant sprinkles (although it’s usually hidden) throughout the picture! Now, let’s briefly explore some connections between the film’s remarkably eclectic background and its narrative strategies, before turning to its use of visual and aural style.
By the historical nature (usually nineteenth century) of their remote locales, Westerns have focused on all- or almost-all-male societies, although few have explicitly looked at homoerotic desire. The greatest film to bring out this subtext is Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948; despite the reticence mandated by Hollywood conservatism, there is no mistaking what drives the Montgomery Clift and John Ireland characters), while the most provocative is Fassbinder’s deliriously revisionist Whity (1971). Although there are very few surviving historical documents of same-sex relationships in the old West – how many cowboys kept journals or wrote novels, let alone openly homoerotic ones? – we can imagine that gay men, and lesbians, would want to go to a sparsely-inhabited area, beyond the persecution of “civilization’s” anti-gay laws and prisons. You can find more information in Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark 1976 anthology, Gay American History, in Section VI at “1868–1948: Male–Male Intimacy in the American West,” which includes some authentic and moving cowboy love lyrics. I also recommend, Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Chris Packard, that explores same-sex relationships on the American frontier, drawing on literary, non-fiction, and visual sources. Mike and Scott’s relationship also reminds us of the previously-unspoken love among those pioneers.
Van Sant plays on both traditional and, in a few telling instances, gay aspects of this genre. He gives us the wide open plains of his Western (or rather, Northwestern) setting, as well as the outlaw-like personas of the characters who cluster around Bob. Scott and Mike may get around on a motorcycle instead of horses, but they are kin to the rough riders of a century earlier. Other overt Western elements include their fellow rent-boy Budd’s unmistakable outlaw pose while mimicking dual six-shooters; the midnight robbery of the rock promoters is staged like a hold-up and the booty is a studded strong box; when the cops come to raid Bob’s hotel Budd shouts, “The sheriff and his posse are here!” The most disturbing reference to this genre concerns Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), when Richard tells Mike how their mom shot Mike’s sleazy “real father.” We soon learn that Richard is lying: he is actually both brother and father – while they were watching Hawks’s movie. Richard’s simple but visceral dialogue includes an unforgettable line about “spilled popcorn soakin’ up the blood.”
In complete contrast, Van Sant introduces the homoerotic dimension of Westerns in the hilarious early fantasy bit in which Scott is depicted as a come-to-life, eroticized cowboy on the cover of Male Call magazine, which is emblazoned with slogans like “Homo on the Range” and “Ready to Ride.” Van Sant’s most powerful homage to the Western is in the film’s best-known scene: Mike’s halting, heartfelt declaration of love to Scott while the two sit around a campfire, alone in the wilderness. Hundreds of variations on the laconic, and iconic, ‘campfire scene’ have been played out in Westerns (the funniest involves the aftermath of eating beans for dinner, in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, 1974), but none like the one here. If you listen closely to the soundtrack, you will hear that Van Sant includes distant echoes of such iconic Western elements as coyotes howling in the distance and the faint sound of Native American chanting. Despite the palpable realism of the scene – the key light was the actual flame of the campfire – the locale was in fact manufactured, shot in front of a cyclorama on a soundstage. Although we will return to this pivotal moment later, for now note that this scene works as an emblem of the tense relationship between both civilization (which Mike and, at least for now, Scott are fleeing) and the wilderness (which, as it has for millennia of myth and literature, holds out the promise of transformation) which surrounds them: Mike and Scott are between two worlds, and how each one responds to the freedom that grants reveals much about his true naure.
My Own Private Idaho also connects the Western with another durable genre, the road movie, of which it is one of the best I have seen. (For an excellent mini-history of the genre, and many insights into this film, watch cinema scholar Paul Arthur’s 44-minute documentary, Kings of the Road, included on this DVD set.) The road movie is a flexible form – encompassing Edgar Ulmer’s film noir masterpiece Detour (1945) and the beloved fantasy musical comedy The Wizard of Oz (1939), as well as such defining works as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1968; Van Sant suggests that film’s final high-angle wide shot in the last image in this film) and Terrence Malick’s sublime Badlands (1973) – but always with the underlying themes of freedom and change. In essence, the road picture is about self-discovery, about characters coming to realize aspects of themselves which (should) allow reintegration both personally and societally. Van Sant’s film is, I believe, the most outstanding work from a period of revisionist road movies, between the mid-’80s and mid-’90s, when often younger directors used the form to explore a diversity of social identities: from slacker – Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) to serial killer – Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), as well as office nerd – Jonathan Demme’s underrated Something Wild (1986), Native American – Jonathan Wacks’s Powwow Highway (1989), feminist – Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), and gay – Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992), Stephen Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). As with the Western, there have been homoerotic undercurrents in road movies, which often feature two characters of the same sex bonding during their adventures together: who can forget the climactic – unexpected yet exactly-right – kiss between Thelma and Louise, or the final reel of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2002). Those moments aside, same-sex desire is often expressed most overtly – touching, cross-dressing, “accidental” kissing – in the “safe” confines of comic variations on the genre, as in Laurel and Hardy movies, the half-dozen Road to… comedies of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (the best of which is Road to Morocco, 1942), and the two goofballs of the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber (1994). But in My Own Private Idaho, the love which “dares not speak its name” does, in the campfire scene. Not only is that a universal moment, which audiences gay or straight can respond to, it’s also a turning point for Mike’s character – and one with even (if you choose to bring the following perspective to your personal reading of the film) mythic resonances.
You can plot this scene as one key step along the path of what historian Joseph Campbell calls the “the hero’s journey” in such books as The Hero With a Thousand Faces (summarized in my brief Basic Guide to Film, and compared to traditional screenplay structure). In essence, what we have – in this film, not to mention the entire road movie genre – is a transformative quest, involving a series of tests and trials which the hero/ine must accomplish before s/he can return to or find their home. Of course, that basic scenario reflects the underlying mythic structure in Western narrative. In literature, it runs from such classical works as Homer’s Odyssey (about 800 B.C.; the first “road” story, as Odysseus/Ulysses undergoes twenty years of adventures before finding his way back home) and a work which Van Sant named as an influence here, Petronius’s Satyricon (c. 66 A.D. – link to an edition at this site). This was arguably the world’s first novel, and a landmark of same-sex literature, with its two randy gay heroes cavorting all over the known world (the ever-controversial 1969 film version, Fellini Satyricon, remains my choice for both best gay-themed film and best Fellini picture). And let’s not forget such later “road” novels as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884; with its interracial and arguably homoerotic bond between Huck and the slave Jim) and, also apt for comparison to this film, James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922; which virtuosically reimagines The Odyssey in terms of a befuddled everyman living in modern Dublin, even as it draws on a staggeringly eclectic array of literary and other works).
In film, you can see this primal structure unfold in virtually every movie ever shown at your local multiplex, even the documentaries, as well as cinema’s greatest works. It is so universal as to be all-but-invisible; yet in My Own Private Idaho it helps provide dramatic cues for the overall structure, as well as explain some of the picture’s enormous emotional resonance. Mike is, of course, the hero – and Campbell’s “innermost cave” corresponds to the campfire scene, the “supreme ordeal” is Mike contending with Scott leaving him for Carmella and the world of Portland’s elite, while the “boon… to benefit the world” which Mike brings back from his quest is nothing less than self-knowledge and honesty. The overall three-act form of Van Sant’s screenplay is traditional (1. exposition – defining Mike, Scott and their world, 2. rising action to climax – Mike and Scott on the road, from Oregon to Idaho to the climax in Italy, and 3. resolution – their return to Portland), but it is given a dreamlike inflection by having Mike standing on a deserted highway in the Idaho wilderness three times: at the very beginning, in the middle (when he and Scott are there together), and in the final scene. And the narrative’s particulars are astonishingly original. It moves from a discursive use of flashbacks (often shot in grainy, faded Super 8 – Van Sant acknowledges his debt to Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), but I think Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980) offer closer analogues), to its parallelism between one person escaping his family (Scott) while another is trying to find his (Mike), to the interplay between Mike’s and a more omniscient narrator as the ‘grand selector’ of what we see, to the actual words we hear which range from Shakespearean verse to modern street jive – and sometimes a striking combination of the two. This is like no other coming of age story / Western / road movie / mythic quest!
Paradoxically, a good part of the film’s originality comes from how Van Sant uses earlier pictures, including one of the greatest Shakespeare films, Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966; also known as Falstaff), and literature, notably the two plays comprising Shakespeare’s Henry IV, which also served as the basis of Welles’s film. Even more surprising is how much of My Own Private Idaho’s dramatic force comes not only from the character conflicts but between its many, often clashing, textural (and textual) layers, from high art to blow jobs, Shakespearean riffs to the grittiest cinema vérité, the pastoral beauty of Italy to the squalor of Portland’s red-light district, meticulous compositions to free-wheeling improvisations, time-lapse shots of landscapes metamorphosing right before our eyes to images of transcendent stillness; this film encompasses burlesque, tragedy and heartrending tenderness, mixing them up in ways which has the audience belly-laughing one minute and sometimes weeping the next. And as we will see, the film achieves a unity much higher than the sum of its disparate parts. Getting to that point is what makes My Own Private Idaho such a unique experience, as our quest to unravel the mysteries – both psychological and formal – of this crazy-quilt film parallels Mike’s quest to find his long-lost mother who represents that elusive place called “home.”
PLEASE NOTE: PLOT “SPOILERS” AHEAD! I have structured this review so that I could discuss many aspects of the film, until now, without revealing too many major story developments, including the ending. If you have not yet seen it, and do not want to know about those sometimes surprising elements, read no further. Otherwise, let’s continue…
Before focusing on the central Shakespeare/Welles connection, which directly informs over one-third of this film, let’s look at some of the many other cinematic traditions which Van Sant brilliantly brings together. In addition to the Westerns and road movies noted above, there are many other films, and schools of cinema, which seem important generative influences on My Own Private Idaho, including several which are not mentioned anywhere in the two-disc/booklet set. At the extremes, we have The Simpsons and crime films (film noir and The Godfather (1972). On a wackily subversive note, Van Sant includes a brief clip, viewed on a passing TV set, from the then-brand-new satirical animated television series, The Simpsons, a favorite of both his and Phoenix’s. (The show’s creator, Matt Groening, grew up in Portland, and that his best friend lived in the large house which Van Sant bought just before making My Own Private Idaho; that house also served as lodgings, and party central, for many of the picture’s cast and crew during the shoot: Van Sant needed quiet to work, so he rented an apartment!).
Subversive in a decidedly non-cartoonish way is the scene wherein we learn that Richard is both Mike’s brother and father (which we look at above in connection with the Western). Significantly, Van Sant does not inflect this incestuous revelation with the shock value of the comparable moment in Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), not only because we’ve already seen that gambit but because he purposefully wants to suspend his film in a complex relationship to the film noir tradition, of which he makes periodic and resonant use. Van Sant based this plot strand on his original unproduced screenplay In A Blue Funk, which he has said is less like noir and more like a Sam Shepard play – True West (1982) comes to mind. (It had a notable Los Angeles stage production in the mid-’80s when Van Sant was living there, with the two emotionally-entangled brothers played by the real-life Quaids, Randy and Dennis). However, there are several iconic noir elements in this film, which add to its dense texture: the shadowy, vaguely menacing office of Mayor Favor, the elegant but tomb-like restaurant where Scott disavows Bob, and of course the alluringly derelict world of Bob Pigeon, populated with junkies, thieves and whores (of all genders) – corrupt cops waiting just outside to bust down the doors. While noir has a limited, although powerful, vision of life as duplicitous, sinful, and fatal – and every element of a noir film supports that, from the ever more sinister, sometimes mind-boggling, plot revelations to the literally dark and twisted visual world – Van Sant’s world view, even as it sometime draws lightly on noir riffs, is virtually its mirror image. Unlike the noir landmark Detour’s highway, which takes on the force of fate and death, the road in this film is almost comforting, even in its limitlessness. In his voice-over, Mike compares it to a vast circle spanning the world but always coming back to where it starts – of course, that could make it hard to get out of the loop, as Mike finds at the end.
Van Sant also draws on another crime-related genre when he uses the greatest gangster film, Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), to comment ironically on the fate of born-again elitist Scott. Not only does his father’s mayoral office – including its shadowy brown and dark orange color scheme – resemble that of Don Corleone’s (Marlon Brando’s), Scott – like the Godfather’s son Michael (Al Pacino) – goes to Italy where he finds a beautiful and sweet native bride. We last see Scott, with the same rigidly handsome features and empty black eyes as Michael’s, the new godfather, in a cemetery at his father’s funeral. Although Scott is not having his rivals machine-gunned as Michael did, he has nonetheless killed Bob. His denunciation of the man he once called his “real father” is every bit as powerful as when, at the end of Henry IV, Part II, Prince Hal – now King Henry V – casts off Falstaff (“I know thee not, old man”). At least Bob goes out with a bang: his riotous funeral – held just a few yards away from that of Mayor Favor, meaning Scott can see it more clearly than he’d like – provides a final explosion of joyous anarchy before the melancholy final scene when, having come full circle, we find ourselves back on a wilderness road, alone with Mike (below, we will look at this scene).
In striking contrast to these “criminal elements,” of noir and gangster films, My Own Private Idaho is also a lyrical, but tough-minded, celebration of nature. It contains rapturously beautiful images of landscape, sky, and animals, both in America’s Northwest and Italy’s countryside. The use of light and composition exquisitely reveals the subjects; and it will come as no surprise to learn that Van Sant is also an accomplished painter and master of art history. Among other artists, Thomas Hart Benton (in the staging and framing of characters) and Edward Hopper (in the eerie stillness of vast, empty plains and isolated buildings) make several appearances here. On this film, Van Sant atypically used two cinematographers. Eric Alan Edwards primarily lighted the interiors, while John J. Campbell operated the camera. Campbell also shot the film’s most striking visual effects: the nature scenes involving time-lapse photography, which literally speeds up the film by taking only one shot every few seconds, instead of the normal 24 frames/shots per second. While Van Sant had used time-lapse in his earlier films, both shorts and features, the ultimate inspiration may have been Godfrey Reggio’s documentary, Koyaanisqatsi (1983), which took time-lapse effects to new expressive heights; also its title, the Hopi word for “life out of balance,” reflects a key theme in this film. The use of this effect also shed light on the evolution of My Own Private Idaho. While the time-lapse shots are so expressive of what Mike feels when he becomes narcoleptic, they were only used for that psychological/narrative purpose when Van Sant and editor Curtiss Clayton did the final cut of the film.
While the influences we have now looked at affect particular aspects of My Own Private Idaho, there are several filmmakers and schools of cinema which inform it more comprehensively. Kubrick’s stunning A Clockwork Orange (1971) can be seen in Van Sant’s lighting, especially the scalding horizontal key light Kubrick uses in the early gang fight at the deserted theatre and when Alex and his Droogs attack the drunk under the bridge, which here is used in the Bob’s boys fleecing the “small-time rock and roll promoters coming back from their gig” (this was the Gadshill robbery of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I). There is still more of Kubrick’s film in the solid primary colors behind the title cards, used both for the opening and end credits, as well as to announce each sequence’s location (note how Van Sant subtly uses the color to suggests emotional shifts in the storyline: the Idaho cards are first blue while Italy is in the ‘color opposite’ hue of red, but after Mike’s and Scott’s transformative experiences, the last time we see the Idaho card its background has blended the two colors into purple, which is also used under Reeves’s name in the end credits: hey, I said this was subtle!). The enormous phallus sculpture of the wealthy lesbian who falls prey to Alex and his gang, is here brought to mind by the wealthy john (or is it jane?) Alena’s (Grace Zabriskie) clitoral pink conch. And both Daddy Carroll’s “Scrub, Little Dutch Boy!” scene (which publicist-turned-comedian Mickey Cottrell wrote with Van Sant) and Hans’s lamp-dance to the German song “Der Adler” (‘the eagle’ – Udo Kier originally wrote the song, with composer Tom Dokoupil, for his own cabaret act) scene bring to mind Alex’s, shall we say revisionist, “Singin’ in the Rain” number in A Clockwork Orange, in the mordant use of documentary-like technique.
Let’s now address the occasional charge of anti-gay stereotypes in this film: although over-the-top characters like the johns may smack of the right-wing’s worst homo-nightmares, even those men are presented with some depth – for instance, the johns, like their “dates,” have a sense of humor, and sometimes even show genuine concern for the young men. Hans, the most developed of the johns, can be read as a riff on the manically obsessed heterosexual character of Quilty in Lolita (Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Kubrick’s 1962 film); he is also played to comic perfection by legendary gay actor Udo Kier (his 150 films includes Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, several Fassbinder films, every one of Lars von Trier’s pictures, and perhaps the best comic book/superhero film ever made, Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998), in which he has a brilliant turn as a vampire oligarch). And other gay or bisexual characters like Mike, Scott, and even Bob, are presented with many, and complex, psychological layers to their natures: the hallmark of a stereotype is a cruelly simplistic one-dimensional portrayal – and I do not believe that Van Sant, whose work is marked by its love of humanity, can be accused of that.
Perhaps the most pervasive stylistic influence on the film as a whole is New German Cinema, especially one of its founding members, Werner Herzog. Van Sant may have been influenced by Herzog’s debut feature, Signs of Life (1968), in particular how he shoots the endless rows of windmills. Van Sant has admitted to being influenced by Stroszek (1977), which is perhaps the one film most like My Own Private Idaho, with its jarring cuts between extreme close and wide shots, its cast of literal outcasts – German street people trying to make a living in the none-too-welcoming rural U.S., and its visual focus on incongruous yet real things which take on a poignant, and political, symbolic weight (at the end, the caged chickens forced to “play” a xylophone in order to get corn/feed). Stroszek was one of only two films which Van Sant assigned Phoenix and Reeves to watch as preparation for this film (the other was another Herzog film, Heart of Glass (1976), which draws its ravishing visuals – which bear comparison to the landscapes in My Own Private Idaho – from the Romantic era painter Caspar David Friedrich; Herzog became notorious for literally hypnotizing his actors on this film to get the controlled-hysteria effect he wanted!). Another New German filmmaker who clearly influenced this film is Wim Wenders. Van Sant has acknowledged Paris, Texas (1984), but despite the rough similarities between its opening (with the Harry Dean Stanton character emerging from a starkly beautiful desert before collapsing asleep, all to the haunting strains of a guitar riff; and it later becomes a road/quest movie of a father and his young son searching for the runaway wife/mother), two earlier Wenders films seem even closer to the spirit of My Own Private Idaho. They are Alice in the Cities (1974), about a journalist going on a journey to help a young girl find her grandmother, and Kings of the Road (1976), about the small-scale adventures of a movie projectionist and the man he rescues and befriends; their territory is literally the hinterlands between West and East Germany but metaphorically it extends much, much farther. In these the other greatest works of New German Cinema – as with My Own Private Idaho – there is a perfect balance between uncannily authentic performances and a visual style which at once captures the places, objects – and people – of the real world even as it suggests enormous metaphorical depths, both political and spiritual. A perfect illustration is the benighted fruit peddler, searching for love and meaning, and his totemic pushcart in Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971). Van Sant, as a gay artist, might feel a special kinship with the co-founder, and most acclaimed filmmaker, of New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (link to my Fassbinder site), whose reputation and influence grows with each passing year. Between Fassbinder and Van Sant you can see many similarities in themes, narrative strategies, composition, use of color, directorial approaches – all despite very different world views. (By the way, Udo Kier appeared in several of Fassbinder’s later films, including Berlin Alexanderplatz.) Although Fassbinder’s most intensely personal work, In a Year With 13 Moons (1978), is distinct from this film in its plot – it is about a transgendered woman’s quest for the man who was the great love of her life – it can be argued that it comes remarkably close to My Own Private Idaho in its density of references, its complex layering of comedy and tragedy, its searing emotions, and its sheer visual beauty (it’s the only film which Fassbinder photographed himself).
My Own Private Idaho opened in 1991, which now seems like the watershed year for LGBTQ cinema. Within a few months of each other, we saw the release of arguably the single best films by three of the greatest contemporary and gay filmmakers: this film, Todd Haynes’s Poison (his outstanding later films include Safe and Far From Heaven), and Derek Jarman’s Edward II (visit my Jarman Website). In fact, Van Sant has noted the impact of artist/filmmaker/author Jarman on his own work. You can see some of Jubilee (1978) in the depiction of Bob’s “alternative family,” as well as play in the visual and directorial style between looseness and thematic rigor; and the come-to-life porno magazine cover with Phoenix in a crucifixion pose (!) recalls Sebastiane (1976). (Trivia buffs take note: Jim Caviezel, who has a bit part as the handsome airline clerk in My Own Private Idaho, two decades later portrayed Jesus in the heavily-promoted movie, The Passion of the Christ.) Taking the gay cinema connection still further, two common influences – on Van Sant as well as Jarman and Fassbinder – are Pasolini and Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey. You can see the Pasolini influence – from such films as Accattone, 1961, and Mamma Roma, 1962 – in Van Sant’s gritty street milieu, as well as the balance between sometimes improvisatory directorial technique and the careful beauty of artistic compositions, sometimes informed by art history; the hustlers Mike meets, and later joins, in Rome are pure Pasolini. Mike is based on the hustler characters in producer Andy Warhol and director Paul Morrissey’s pictures like Flesh (1968), in which Joe Dallesandro plays a muscle-bound heroin junkie who tricks as a prostitute on the streets of New York to support his habit. But in contrast, Mike is an everyday, scruffy kid, who wears his heart (perhaps too much) on his sleeve. From another perspective, you could say that Mike comes mid-point on the (ahem!) “cinematic hustler continuum,” extending from the icy and sometimes cruel Dallesandro characters to the painfully naive Jon Voight character in gay director John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969).
While Van Sant credits the title character of George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans’s) Silas Marner (1861) with giving him the idea for Mike’s narcolepsy, most of the other books and plays which influenced him on this film are part of the GLBT literary tradition, beginning with classical authors like Homer and Petronius, who were mentioned above. Even a work by a straight author like Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist (1839), has its long-closeted same-sex aspects brought to light. We can easily see Mike as a latter-day Oliver, Scott as the Artful Dodger (albeit with vastly better future prospects), and Bob as Fagin with his gang of urchins (Shakespeare’s Falstaff has a more adult-aged gang) – although Van Sant’s Bob, who admits to being in love with Scott, is openly but unremarkably gay (which ‘makes you wonder’ about his predecessors Fagin and Falstaff). The literary characters, both on and behind the page, which are most at home with this film are outcasts like Jean Genet (The Thief’s Journal, 1949), and especially the personas of Beat Generation authors like novelist Jack Kerouac (On the Road, 1957), poet Allen Ginsberg (Howl, 1956) and experimental writer William Burroughs. (They latter two were friends of Van Sant, and they received memorial tributes in the end credits of Good Will Hunting.) Also important is John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), about the cross-country adventures of a gay hustler, which so intimidated Van Sant with its verbal pyrotechnics that he says it kept him for years from completing his screenplay to this film. (He had Phoenix and Reeves read the book as background for their roles; both actors were deeply struck by it; in fact, Reeves went on to read all of Rechy’s other books – Rechy is now a professor of literature at the University of Southern California.) Also, those books by Genet, Kerouac and Rechy are classic “road” stories, feeding into that seminal component of this film.
It’s important to note that even while Van Sant works within these same-sex cultural traditions, his themes are universal – the search for home, the meaning of love, the nature of family, the painful journey towards forging your own unique self – and allow his work to connect with diverse audiences around the world.
Van Sant also redefines the scope of certain LGBTQ themes. For instance, he offers a different and more affirmative incarnation of the figure of The Outsider than the illustrious gay filmmakers and authors noted above. Their “lost souls” burn as brightly as any in Van Sant, but ultimately they are extinguished, often in death. One reason this film feels so honest and full is that while Van Sant probes as deeply as his predecessors – not only into highly individualized characters but also into the socio-economic milieus which produce them, whether the hustlers’ street or the mayor’s elite – he is able to imbue his characters, like Mike, with the self- and society-questioning tools which may allow them to survive. Van Sant also enlarges his vision by giving us a contrast, a suitably ambiguous flip side, in Scott. Will he go on to lead a life of duplicity, like some of the johns we meet who have a wife and kids waiting back home while they are “away on business,” a euphemism for being out whoring for an hour or two. One horrible possible future for ruling-class Scott would be a political career based on persecuting gay people and their families, as he projects his own internal, and increasing, loathing onto his former cohorts, trying to destroy what’s in himself by victimizing others.
Of course, there is a great gay author, with a sublimely affirmative vision, who permeates every aspect of this film from worldview to technique, although (shockingly) he is never mentioned anywhere in the DVD set: Walt Whitman. His utterly original collection of autobiographical free-verse poems, Leaves of Grass (link to free online edition; its nine distinct and sometimes radically different revisions, made between 1855 and 1892, span over half the poet’s lifetime), is the most influential American book of the nineteenth century, not to mention the most openly and jubilantly homoerotic (Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Rechy are just a few of the many writers who acknowledge Whitman). Twentieth century American and even international literature’s debt to it, whether in verse or prose, is incalculable; as is cinema’s. Pioneering gay filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) credited Whitman – whose poetry is typically a cascade of dozens, even hundreds, of naturalistic details (we must find the connections for ourselves) – with revealing the immense expressive potential of juxtposing images, rapidly, one after the other. Eisenstein’s theory of montage (detailed in his landmark books, The Film Sense and The Film Form) has become perhaps the most influential theory of filmmaking: one of thousands of examples is the wild opening sequence of My Own Private Idaho, which we looked at above.
Shakespeare should be considered gay or bisexual, his autobiographical Sonnets – the greatest poetry of unrequited love in the English language, including such lines as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (Sonnet 18) – are virtually all addressed to the handsome, fickle young man with whom the narrator is madly in love. But of course Shakespeare’s greatness encompasses more than his sexual orientation.
Look at how his vivid characterizations, boisterous language, and dramatic flair inspire Van Sant to reimagine his 400-year-old plays about the young man who eventually assumes the English throne. Shakespeare’s mastery of the English tongue is, of course, unparalleled; use your mind’s ear to hear how Falstaff’s first speech (given below) not only indicates the physical realities of his world – how its denizen eat, drink, and amuse themselves – but about the irrepressible scalawag himself; even the gushing quality of the words delineates his expansive nature. Van Sant’s language is very much in the stripped-down yet resonant argot of his characters’ world, even as it has an unpretentious but real poetry of its own. This suggests a provocative continuity between Shakespeare’s time and our own, not just in the language but in the characters, who are universal (the Prince Hal/Scott Favor ‘prodigal son’ motif even predates Shakespeare, as well as the Bible), and their larger implications, including socio-political and ethical ones: the meanings of personal identity, family, honesty, even the socio-economic disparities which breed crime. And while Shakespeare’s almost non-existent stage directions allow directors enormous freedom, there is much to be said for how Van Sant uses physical action to flesh out his characters and dialogue. Let’s see how metaphors for time have gone from “a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta” to “a fair hustler in black leather…”
Comparison of a Parallel Scene from Henry IV, Part I and My Own Private Idaho
Henry IV, Part I
Below is the beginning of Act I, Scene 2, in which Shakespeare introduces both his rotund comic anti-hero Falstaff and the young, wayward Prince Hal (the future King Henry V). Here are free, unabridged online editions of both Henry IV, Part I [free online] and Henry IV, Part II [free online.
ACT I, SCENE 2. London. An apartment of the Prince’s.
Enter the PRINCE OF WALES [also called PRINCE HENRY or PRINCE HAL] and FALSTAFF
Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack
and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon
benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to
demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know.
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the
day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes
capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the
signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself
a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no
reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand
the time of the day.
My Own Private Idaho
Compare Shakespeare’s scene to Van Sant’s counterpart, which comes a third into the My Own Private Idaho screenplay, draft of April 1989, that differs a bit from the finished film (in which Bob’s first line is, “Scott, my true son, how are you?”). To facilitate the comparison, I’ve omitted the scene’s beginning in which Mike picks the sleeping Bob’s pockets, taking some cocaine and cash. Scott enters and Mike shows him his haul. Bob wakes up.
[INTERIOR – Derelict Hotel – Night]
What time is it, son?
(climbing in bed with Bob)
What do you care?
Bob, dazed, is looking around himself, like he is being had.
Why, you wouldn’t even look at a
clock, unless hours were lines of
coke, dials looked like the signs of
gay bars, or time itself was a fair
hustler in black leather… isn’t
that right, dude?
Bob staggers out of bed retching and spitting. Then back into his waking stupor, feeling something is being put over on him.
There’s no reason to know the
time. We are timeless.
Bob checks his wallet.
My Own Private Idaho filters Shakespeare through arguably the greatest filmmaker yet produced by the English-speaking world: Orson Welles (although Kubrick comes mighty close). Others will certainly disagree, but I believe that Welles’s 1952 Othello (link to my mini-analysis of a sequence) and Chimes at Midnight are the two greatest Shakespeare films ever made: Othello because while Welles retains almost every scene, he jettisons three-fourths of the dialogue while simultaneously turning Shakespeare’s poetry into images which capture, with unparalleled richness, the play’s tone and complex depths; and Chimes at Midnight not only because Welles’s Falstaff is perhaps his single greatest performance, and the epic battle scene as astonishing as any ever filmed, but because again his use of composition, texture, lighting, and editorial rhythms captures, with a minimum of dialogue, the fullness of one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. (Welles’s screenplay is also the most sublime “cobbling” job in film history, as he draws together the most fitting Falstaff material from five Shakespeare plays, and adds his own flourishes.) To paraphrase the above in Idaho-speak, “Those Welles flicks are awesome, dude(tte)!”
Although I’m not sure if Van Sant shares my idolatry of those films, he is clearly inspired by Welles at a deep level. At times he even recreates shots from Chimes at Midnight, as in Bob’s death. He also brings a post-’60s-sexual-revolution and political slant to this film, not to mention youthful energy, which is more Shakespearean than Wellesian. By making Bob an openly gay Falstaff, Van Sant not only underscores an element which could be read into Shakespeare’s text, or rather subtext, he also casts a suggestive light on Welles’s body of work. As Paul Arthur notes in his documentary, in many of Welles’s greatest films his male/male relationships are stronger and more affecting than the male/female ones – although I would add that Welles’s character is invariably the object of any homoerotic desire. Think of the relationship of Jedediah Leland to Welles’s title character in Citizen Kane (1941), of Iago to Welles’s Othello, and most overtly, of police Sergeant Pete Menzies to Welles’s Captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958), who is a sort of film noir Falstaff. Welles’s best films, like Shakespeare’s plays, have depths within depths. Politically, Welles highlights the class conflict implicit in Shakespeare’s plays, while Van Sant pushes the theme still further, although never indulging in polemics. You can, of course, find still more connections among this gifted trio of works. I am especially moved by how Van Sant, as an artist, responds deeply to the unparalleled beauty of Shakespeare’s language and Welles’s images, as he uses both (sometimes literally) in My Own Private Idaho. Let me briefly mention a literary theory which may also shed some light on Van Sant’s relationship to both Shakespeare and Welles: Yale Professor Harold Bloom notes in his groundbreaking study, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), that it is essential for every artist both to come to terms with and to feel that he has moved beyond his predecessors. In any event, it is a tribute to this exceptional contemporary filmmaker that his picture not only invites but can withstand such heady comparisons, and more, even as he ultimately pulls his vision in a unique direction.
With its many densely-woven layers, Van Sant still manages to bring an intensely personal quality to this film – and not just because he “signs” it with his quirky cameo as a Warhol-lookalike bellboy in a bright-red jacket at the hotel where Mike and Scott stop, or because he plays clarinet in the small ensemble recording Bill Stafford’s score for the film. He notes that the image of the crashing barn in the opening sequence is also an image which he has painted several times, one of the more visceral, and somewhat wacky, metaphors for his frequent theme of dislocation and homelessness. It also goes back to a dream image from his early childhood (perhaps inspired by Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farmhouse crash-landing in Oz?), which was marked by frequent moves to accommodate his father’s business. To those early themes, Van Sant has of course added many more adult one in My Own Private Idaho, which pushes beyond even Drugstore Cowboy in its exploration of life at the abyss, even as it shows his increasing mastery of directing actors and other creative people to realize his vision cinematically. During the years he spent writing this screenplay (or rather, the three separate scripts which he ultimately merged into My Own Private Idaho), Van Sant sometimes lived among street people, listened to their stories, felt the pull of their world. Shakespeare aside, Van Sant actually knew flesh-and-blood inspirations for Mike (a hustler named Mike Parker), Scott (a rent-boy who loved to read Dostoevsky), and Bob (whose real-life counterpart plays the john going down on River Phoenix in the opening sequence). You can feel the authenticity, not only in the performances but in the writing. Van Sant was fascinated with the parallels between the respective, yet comparable, streets worlds of Henry IV and today’s Portland. On the DVD, he talks about the “magnetic figures” who organize life for these street kids, even as they all deal with their “conflicts with polite society.” Some people, including myself, feel that there is not quite enough bleakness in Van Sant’s depiction of Bob’s anarchic world, but he argues that this film should be seen as a companion piece to Drugstore Cowboy, which focuses on the grimness of this world. There are also moments in this film which certainly de-glamorize our puppyish outcast hero, Mike, as when from the sleeping Bob he steals money and coke, which he snorts gleefully. Even as Van Sant reveals the (sometimes surreal) amusements of these kids – what do they laugh about with their buddies, how do they get through their day – he simultaneously inflects the film with the pathetic and tragic elements of their lives on the edge.
As a filmmaker, Van Sant feels that in My Own Private Idaho he discovered the right balance between scripted and improvised performances. He believes that written dialogue is a stage convention mandated by theatre’s exigencies: if an actor misses a performance, the understudy must have the exact same text. But in film, you can make up dialogue as you go because the discipline comes from other aspects of production, from artistic helps like storyboards to the technological demands of building sets and setting up lights and cameras. He tried to be in control even as he created a relaxed atmosphere on set, allowing for the spontaneity – and goofing around – which could yield deeper performances. With his screenplay to rely on, he felt comfortable letting actors improvise new dialogue; sometimes he let them take scenes in unexpected directions. For instance, it was Phoenix who wanted to make Mike more clearly gay than Van Sant had written him. With 36 days to do an 80-page script, there was just enough time for a comfortable shoot, including blocking on the actual sets or locations. Pragmatically, Van Sant covered every scene in an all-encompassing master take, even as he often focused on particular details in cutaway shots (which, in the final edit, were sometimes lifted from unrelated scenes) – for some of the tightest close-ups, the cinematographer had to literally grab onto the actor to get the shot. With his production designer David Brisbin, Van Sant was able to create exactly the atmosphere he wanted, despite a tight budget: for instance, he used parts of five separate hotels, in two cities, to create Bob’s seamless, and seamy, domain.
The final, and I believe triumphant, results of Van Sant’s close work with his gifted cast and crew are right there on the screen, as Shakespeare/Welles, Portland’s demimonde, and the filmmaker’s unique vision all come together. Before concluding, let’s look at what the three lead actors and the visual/sound style bring to this film.
William Richert is an inspired if unlikely choice to play Bob. Richert is primarily a director, whose best-known film is the cult suspense/satirical classic, Winter Kills. When the original actor did not work out (pardon my nosiness, but I do wish that his identity had been revealed), Phoenix suggested his friend Richert, who had directed him in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988; Richert directed and wrote, based on his own novel). (There’s a wonderful anecdote about Phoenix and Richert spending hours together, telling each other story after story after story.) Although Van Sant admits to having been a little nervous about directing another director as an actor, he also clicked with Richert, whom he praised as being a “real bohemian.” He brings not only a grizzled, earthy quality to this avatar of Falstaff, he also lets us feel his burning intelligence, charisma, and – especially important for these lost kids – empathy, all wrapped up in one big raunchy package. Van Sant has given this character an apt new name, since Bob is a perfect “everyman” kind of name, and Pigeon both caricatures his appearance and suggests that – like Dickens’s Fagin or Faulkner’s Snopeses or Steinbeck’s Joads – no matter how many individual incarnations pass away, the (Falstaff) type will endure.
Scott Favor is perhaps Keanu Reeves’s most fully-developed and memorable performance to date, although I feel that he is somewhat underappreciated as an actor. His range extends from playing the “heavy” in Kenneth Branagh’s delightful film of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), to the science fiction/action heroics of The Matrix trilogy (1999–2003), which Reeves sustains far more effectively than the special effects. This role brought considerable demands, from making Van Sant’s quasi-Elizabethan dialogue sound natural coming out of his mouth, to using his body in a freer way than in his other films. Despite the extensive research Reeves did into both actual street life and the film and literary sources which inspired My Own Private Idaho, he never felt comfortable in the milieu, yet he had to project that quality on screen: and I believe he does, in part because of Van Sant’s accommodating and inspired directorial approach. Van Sant has also given the character a resonant name: Favor, which is a good deed but with strings attached. It is no mean feat to make us believe in Scott’s startling transition from gay hustler, who seems to genuinely enjoy playing with Mike’s nipples in bed while shocking the cops, to the stone-faced heterosexual pillar of the community at the end. As Shakespeare put it, “And like bright metal on a sullen ground, / My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” — and as Van Sant puts it, “When I turn twenty-one, I don’t want any more of this life. My mother and father will be surprised at the incredible change. It will impress them more when such a fuck up like me turns good than if I had been a good son all along…. I will change when everybody expects it the least.” Intriguingly, Van Sant and Reeves raise the possibility that Scott’s transformation, as distinct from Prince Hal’s, is motivated by homosexual panic, that when he let Mike become too close to him, in the campfire scene, he jumped at the first shot he got at upper-class respectability: at the end, Carmella does not look terribly happy as Scott’s wife, does she – and ditto for Scott, last seen in his literal and also suggestive black funereal garb, his spiritless (Michael Corleone-like) eyes watching the freewheeling abandon of Bob’s funeral instead of his own father’s.
Second only to Van Sant, River Phoenix is the key figure in the history of this film. Not only is Mike Waters Phoenix’s crowning achievement as an actor, he was also instrumental in re-writing the character, bringing Reeves, Richert and others into the cast and crew, and making sure the film was made: Phoenix was a major, bankable teen-heartthrob star, whose career certainly did not need to encompass such a tremendously risky role as that of a down-and-out gay prostitute. (Incredibly, nowhere does the DVD or booklet mention that Phoenix would soon die, of a drug-induced heart attack, coincidentally on the same day that Federico Fellini (La Dole Vita, 1960) passed away: October 31, 1993.) Phoenix uses all of his formidable gifts as an actor to realize Mike, from the way he slightly closes up his body, to how he twitches just before he literally falling into a narcoleptic sleep, to how he inhabit his disheveled clothes (he appreciated costumer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor for finding exactly the rights things for him to wear, often in second-hand bins) to his bizarre mop of hair, which looks like some alien fungus sprouting out of a Pompadour (Phoenix created and maintained the distinctive hairdo himself). Phoenix’s Mike is one of the most original, complexly-developed, and unforgettable screen characters of our time, as he both sums up and – with tentative optimism – perhaps transcends the tens of thousands of benighted kids like him, even as he fits into Van Sant’s larger vision for this film (as we will see below).
Phoenix’s contributions also add to the thematic richness of Van Sant’s film. The stark yet ingratiating realness of his performance allows even the film’s most abstract sociological, political, mythic and philosophical ideas to become flesh and blood, even as it lets him connect with a wide range of audiences. For instance, think of how the campfire scene pulses with life because of Phoenix’s performance – as well as his behind-the-scenes contributions; now imagine how flat, or worse ludicrous, it could have been with less inspired and gifted artists. Van Sant has noted that his original version of this scene was very brief, and decidedly un-homoerotic. It was Phoenix who convinced him, in part through lines of dialogue written on several scraps of paper (which he showed to his friend Reeves), of the final direction not only Mike in that scene, but in the entire film, should take, as a fully-developed gay character, instead of a less-specific “outsider” figure. That unrequited love of Mike for Scott resonates throughout the entire film, even in the many sequences which were shot before the campfire scene, and gives it not only psychological particularity but enormous, and subtle, emotional resonance; and in its universality – unobtainable love is as common a human experience as you will find (just ask Shakespeare the sonneteer) – it transcends being a so-called “gay” niche film to become one which can connect with, and perhaps even move to tears, any audience, anywhere.
For the film as a reflection of Van Sant’s (even) larger vision, Phoenix has made yet another essential contribution: he is the one who gave Mike Waters a last name. Van Sant had simply and always referred to the character as Mike. But Waters is arguably the best-possible name. On a personal level, the name may have been suggested by Phoenix’s own first name, River. On a metaphorical level, it suggests the flowing nature not only of Mike’s experiences and mind, through which the form of this seemingly disjointed film emerges, but of what may be Van Sant’s ultimate vision – although the extent to which it is intuitive or conscious, he is wisely not saying (that’s for each of us to decide personally).
Let me note that my following comments become increasingly speculative, and I certainly do not mean to try to limit this immensely rich, and entertaining, film to any one reading, least of all my own. The most meaningful interpretation of this or any work is, of course, the one which you evolve yourself. Still, I hope my suggestions help increase your enjoyment! Now, let’s get back on the interpretive road…
As we saw in the opening montage sequence, which serves as a perfect “overture” for the style and themes of the entire picture, Van Sant intentionally gives them the film a lot of rough edges – this is emphatically not a “slick” movie – to parallel the subject matter, but it is also more than that. This is a picture which flows, which cascades, sometimes in torrents of images and sounds. (Some casual viewers may even feel a bit like the salmon we see in that sequence, struggling so hard to swim upstream against the opposing currents: those of us who love this film hope that they too will persevere.)
That flowing quality is an important way that Van Sant holds together this film which, more than most, gyrates between different – and often conflicting – extremes on every level: the wild mix of musical styles ranges from neo-Elizabethan street music (during Bob’s first appearance), to country-western (Eddy Arnold’s rendition of Tex Owens’s haunting “Cattle Call”), to “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” to ’30s crooner Rudy Vallee’s “Deep Night,” to Madonna’s “Cherish,” to Udo Kier’s campily twisted cabaret number “Der Adler,” to Bill Stafford’s spine-tingling rendition of “America, the Beautiful” played on a custom pedal steel guitar, as well as his original cues for the film, with their haunting quality which combines childlike sweetness, exoticism and a sense of being lost); writing and acting which extends from the highly-scripted (Scott and Bob’s neo-Shakespearean monologues) to the completely improvised (the two hustlers in the cafe scene – one in an askew baseball cap, the other with long blond hair named Digger – are real street kids, not actors, and they are talking about whatever they wanted to, while the camera rolled); meticulously-designed stylization to raw naturalism captured with documentary-like techniques (both of which we see, at various times, in Bob’s derelict hotel); scenes of pathos (Scott cradling the sleeping Mike in his arms beneath a Portland fountain: by the way, the “man” seated on the stag is not part of the statute; it’s one of the actors in copper-green greasepaint) to tragedy (Bob’s death) to comedy, which itself ranges from believable quirks of individual characters to the surreal scene of porn magazine cover boys coming to life and arguing with each other (Van Sant invented several of the titles, including Male Call and G-String Jesus); views of both the natural world, whether the spatially limitless Idaho wilderness or verdant Italian countryside, and the spatially constricted, raw urban environments, like Portland, Seattle and Rome: both of those different environments are alternately depicted as gorgeous and menacing; street life, both Oregonian and Italian, to rural trailer life (Richard Waters) to the upper-crust world of the well-heeled johns, of both genders, and the Favors; an extraordinarily dense web of mythic, literary and cinematic allusions – gay and straight, from high art to pop – interspersed with bursts of immediate, unscripted spontaneity; shots which veer from extreme close-ups to extreme wide angles, and from high perspectives to low (as when we look down from the roof of Bob’s sprawling hotel to see a long shot of Scott and Mike zipping away on their motorcycle, then suddenly cut to a low angle close-up – camera mounted on the bike’s base – looking up at the handlebars, as Portland streaks by); images of landscapes and sky which transform flowingly before our eyes via time-lapse effects to montages of frozen tableaux of erotic scenes, both gay (Hans, Scott and Mike) and straight (Scott and Carmella); present time to flashbacks which exist in varying levels of clarity, from hard focus to grainy images blown up from Super-8; reality of the moment to subjective, at times hallucinatory, images reflecting Mike’s consciousness, which moves freely – especially when entering a narcoleptic episode – in time, between his childhood and the present, and space, from extreme close-ups of objects to vast horizons of earth and sky.
All of these conflicting elements are filtered through the picture’s major ambiguity, which can be summed up in a question: how much of the narrative is from Mike’s individual point of view (he leaves his stamp on most, but not all, of the film’s structure and texture) and how much reflects a perhaps omniscient narrator who encompasses Mike and his world within a larger context? To the film’s credit, while it never seems to answer those questions definitively – which are perhaps too literal-minded for such a free-spirited and densely-layered film – it does create coherence in some extraordinary ways, which in turn will lead us to its larger vision.
At the simplest level, there is a naturalistic explanation for why the film works: the visual style, and the verbal and performance styles, are filtered through Mike’s perceptions – and we know and like this guy (thanks to Phoenix’s flawless performance). Since Mike, at the film’s most dizzyingly experimental moments, seems to be in a dream state, we can relax: we’ve all seen ‘head trip’ movies (including the psychedelic climactic sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), so we can just go with the flow, and not have to worry about ‘what it means’ (unless we want to). Even the title suggests that the film comes from a place that is at once profoundly internal (“My Own Private…” – the second and third words add increasing emphasis) yet grounded in the real and mundane world (with apologies to the state of “…Idaho”), both of which are associated with Mike. (By the way, Van Sant derived his title from the B-52s’ song “Private Idaho,” from their 1980 album Wild Planet, although it is never used in the film; still, he acknowledges the group in the credits, perhaps because on some mysterious level their song, which he listened to incessantly while driving through that state in the early ’80s, helped inspire his initial ideas for the film.)
Likewise, the film’s sometimes kaleidoscopic use of dualities – some of which I noted a moment ago, from dramatic form to visual/aural style to socio-economic disparities – can also be given a naturalistic reading. The film could be seen as reflecting the differences between Mike and Scott while simultaneously reading them as doubles, with each one as the flip side of the other. As we will see, that fits with what may be the film’s larger vision.
Let’s look at the final scene, with Mike for the third time on a highway in the Idaho wilderness, which seems to bring us back full circle to the opening sequence (and structural center) – yet there are changes. As we have seen throughout the film, Mike has grown in many ways. He has come to understand and express his true nature, by declaring his love for Scott; he has learned the painful secret about the incestuous nature of his parentage, thus ending his unwarranted idealization of his mother but also seeing his brother/father more fully; he has had a wide variety of experiences, cutting across social, economic, even international barriers; and although he still suffers from narcolepsy at the end, it is important to note that, in the next-to-last sequence, at the dual funerals, for the first time he is able to express a howl of rage, at the injustice of Bob’s death and Scott’s desertion – and maybe even the lack of communication, loneliness, and pain he has seen so many times on his journey – while still making music playing his makeshift drum. Mike has become more in touch with his primal feelings – love, anger, even creativity – than at any earlier time. And he understands the limitlessness of the road which leads around the world “and back.” Now we, and hopefully Mike, understand that the question is if he can find the strength and clarity to get off the road at a point where he wants, and create a home for himself, or whether he’ll wind up circling on it forever, moving but never continuing to go forward emotionally.
One hopeful sign is in the film’s form. It registers a subtle but important change between the parallel opening and closing Mike/highway scenes. The first is shot hand-held, giving a rough, jittery quality; at the end, the camera is on a dolly, and its movements are smooth. But don’t hold your breath for a sappy-happy ending. Mike again falls asleep, two ‘kickers pull up and steal his boots but, in the cool optimism of Van Sant’s vision, that becomes moot. A man in a car stops, lifts up Mike’s sleeping, twitching form, and drives off with him. Since that was purposely done in a long shot, we cannot tell who the man is; but in the most intriguing deleted scene on the DVD, we see that he is Mike’s brother/father, Richard: Mike is going home at last. If you think that was too Hollywood, in the 1989 screenplay draft, the driver of the car rescuing Mike is none other than Scott! But Van Sant wisely chose to not wrap up the film so neatly. He has gone on record as saying that he believes that wherever Mike wakes up, his new adventures will be good ones: considering how far Mike has come, literally and metaphorically, I agree. The more open ending we have in the released film both satisfies and tantalizes with the possibilities which each of us, personally, must imagine. On one level, that makes the film even more involving, and memorable. But on a deeper level, the openness suggests even more.
Now that we have looked at the ending from Mike’s perspective, let’s return to the issue of the ambiguous, perhaps omniscient narrator, which selects everything we see and hear. The film ends with Mike’s, and the ’80s’, catchphrase of “Have a nice day” turned into a title card, which is both ironic, perhaps even a bit caustic, yet sweetly hopeful too. (Van Sant shrewdly cut the too-literal special effects shot of a huge ’80s ‘Smiley Face’ appearing in the clouds, as Mike and his rescuer drive off, but it’s included among the deleted scenes.) This shot highlights the congruity between Mike and the guiding narrative intelligence, but it also implies much more.
As much as I like and respect the character of Mike, it is – strange as it may sound – the film’s larger narrative force which makes this film so profoundly moving. (To what extent that implicit narrator is Van Sant himself, remains yet another unanswerable mystery.) While the narrator encompasses Mike – from his literal perceptions of the world around him to the phantasmagorical liminal state between waking and sleep (in the montages which herald an oncoming narcoleptic fit) to his quirkiest dreams (like the come-to-life porno cover-boys) – it also shares with us a larger vision, which is both transcendent yet deeply humane. We saw this from the film’s very first shot – the dictionary definition of narcolepsy – which immediately indicates that there is a larger perspective than just Mike’s at work. We see this in other ways too. While Mike would have been jealous of Scott’s female lover, Carmella, the narrator is able to present her as the beautiful, sweet-natured and passionate woman that (we assume) she is – although Mike’s feelings are expressed by the exact parallelism between the series of frozen images of himself, Hans and Scott, and later just Scott and Carmella, having sex. The narrator appears to be omnisexual, or even beyond gender: it equally enjoys looking at the bodies of both men and women.
The narrator is also omnivorous in the unparalleled richness of the cultural works – literature, the visual arts, music, and of course film, from gay and other traditions – which it both brings together and revealingly plays off each other, for us but not really for Mike. Yet with the exception of the Shakespearean sections, it never blares out its allusions; it incorporates them into its larger texture, allowing us to find and think about them, if we so desire – or not (for those of you who skipped over the pages of literary and cinematic references which I included above, no problem!). The narrator also understands that there is much more to life than art, which is why it always returns to the natural world, with its infinite variety and primal struggles – as embodied by those luminous salmon – which we see at both the beginning and end of the film – fighting the river currents to swim upstream and spawn, then die. Perhaps its fundamental metaphor is found in the scenes of Mike waking up and seeing the world afresh: this film is about opening your eyes and really seeing what is around you, and inside you – and it’s about making connections… lots of connections. It shows us art and life ultimately in balance – but not stasis. Its primal images seem to come not only from the selective narrator, which is embodying the themes, and the artist behind it, but – like the greatest poetry of Whitman – directly from a collective and universal state of being. The close observation of the real world has yielded a kind of spiritual fullness, which connects us to everything around us and within us.
Since this film is also, on one level, a meditation on the conflicted nature of America, notice how it connects in some essential ways with its homegrown philosophy: Transcendentalism. As espoused by such nineteenth luminaries as Emerson, Thoreau and (again) Whitman, Transcendentalism was based on the belief that knowledge is not limited to observation and experience; rather, reality exists only in the world of the spirit, which transcends mere appearances. The solution to human problems is in the free development of individual emotions guided by reason. Note how this film’s techniques – from the wonderfully fitful narrative structure to the vast, and sometimes contradictory, visual and sound styles, even the flexibility of the sometimes improvisatory directorial approach – both reflect and promote this form of understanding. We see the extraordinary, sometimes sensuous, range of the world’s beauty, as well as its many traps both natural and man-made, but through a form which forces us to dig far beneath the surface. At first that is just so we can make sense of the sometimes avant-garde storytelling, but later we realize that there is an even deeper purpose. People learn about the physical world through their senses and understanding, whether Mike or us in the audience. But we learn about the world of the spirit through another power: reason. Emphasizing individuality and self-reliance, in defiance of mindless conformity, the Transcendentalists believed that we can each find truth within ourselves, and use that wisdom to reform society. It is not a stretch to see that this rational/spiritual philosophy is what the film ultimately wants us to consider, in its beautiful and complex – but never easy – fullness.
This film celebrates humanity, gives us hope, but not by smoothing over the rough edges of the world; it goes on to reveal the deeper substance and continuity beneath the extremes of experience. It is not some gimmicky yoking together of disparate elements (as in, for example, so many music videos), rather it shows us how to integrate diversity into a whole, albeit a complex whole – and one with a profound openness which we must each learn to navigate for ourselves.
One important way it does that is, in fact, through the ambiguity of the narrator: we must make sense of this film, in part by peeling away layer (cultural) within layer (natural world) within layer (societal disparities) within layer (deep organizing narrative structure) within layer (ourselves). And we have to learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty and openness – in film as in life – before we can achieve any kind of meaningful wholeness. This film embodies on every level, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron, a deeply spiritual humanism, from the beauty of its cinema eye (gorgeous but simple and never phony images to reveal emotion) to the profoundly non-judgmental yet ethical core of its convictions to its raucous yet integrative sense of humor, which both exposes and helps mend social dysfunctions, as we see in the character of Bob, the criminal who is simultaneously a father figure. Yet for all of its brilliance, the film never presents itself as an infallible text, which would lead to a rigid, ultimately corrosive – and false – finality. Instead, it lets us open our own eyes and minds and hearts to the potentially transformative experiences of the world, from art to nature to our own individual selves, including life on both sides of the proverbial tracks and the sometimes hair-raising messes we can get ourselves into.
The wild and liberating journey which the film takes us on, all the way from teen prostitutes to perhaps Transcendent(al) wisdom, is what makes its vision both all-encompassing and profoundly yet ambiguously affirmative. It points the way to – but never dictates – the possibility of a new and humane life, one which we must create for ourselves… now that we’re awake for good.
- Written & Directed by Gus Van Sant
- “Additional Dialogue by William Shakespeare” (talk about tongue-in-cheek credits)
- Produced by Laurie Parker
- Executive Producer Gus Van Sant
- Co-Executive Producer Alan Mindel
- Line Producer Anthony Brand
- Cinematography by John J. Campbell & Eric Alan Edwards
- Edited by Curtiss Clayton
- Production Design by David Brisbin
- Art Direction by Ken Hardy
- Set Decoration by Missy Stewart
- Costume Design by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
- Makeup by Gina Monaci
- Sound Editor Peter Appleton
- Supervising Sound Editor Kelley Baker
- Visual Effects by Thomas Arndt
- Special Thanks to James L. Brooks
- Original Music by Bill Stafford, Charles Henderson, & River Phoenix (credited as “Aleka’s Attic”)
- River Phoenix as Mike Waters
- Keanu Reeves as Scott Favor
- James Russo as Richard Waters
- William Richert as Bob Pigeon
- Rodney Harvey as Gary
- Chiara Caselli as Carmella
- Michael Parker as Digger
- Jessie Thomas as Denise
- Flea as Budd
- Grace Zabriskie as Alena
- Tom Troupe as Jack Favor
- Udo Kier as Hans
- Sally Curtice as Jane Lightwork
- Robert Lee Pitchlynn as Walt
- Mickey Cottrell as Daddy Carroll
- Wade Evans as Wade
- Matthew Ebert as Coverboy
- Scott Patrick Green as Coverboy/Cafe Kid
- Tom Cramer as Coverboy
- Vana O’Brien as Sharon Waters
- Shaun Jordan as Cafe Kid
- Shawn Jones as Cafe Kid
- George Conner as Bad George
- Oliver Kirk as Indian Cop
- Stanley Hainsworth as Dirtman
- Joshua Halladay as Baby Mike
- Douglas Tollenen as Little Richard
- Steven Clark Pachosa as Hotel Manager
- Lannie Swerdlow as Disco Manager
- Wally Gaarsland as Rock Promoter
- Brian Wilson as Rock Promoter
- Mark Weaver as Rock Promoter
- Conrad ‘Bud’ Montgomery as Rock Promoter
- Pat Patterson as Cop
- Steve Vernelson as Cop
- Mike Cascadden as Cop
- Eric Hull as Mayor’s Aide
- James A. Arling as Minister
- James Caviezel as Airline Clerk
- Ana Cavinato as Stewardess
- Melanie Mosely as Lounge Hostess
- Greg Murphy as Carl
- David Reppinhagen as Yuppie at Jake’s
- Tiger Warren as Himself
- Massimo Di Cataldo as Italian Street Boy
- Pao Pei Andreoli as Italian Street Boy
- Robert Egon as Italian Street Boy
- Paolo Baiocco as Italian Street Boy
- Mario Stracciarolo as Mike’s Italian Client
- Jesse Merz as Mean Kid (uncredited)
- Tom Peterson as “Bit Part” (uncredited)
- Eli Swenson as Street Hustler (Seattle) (uncredited)
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The Criterion Collection presents My Own Private Idaho in a director-approved high-definition digital transfer, as part of a definitive two-disc Special Edition, which includes a wealth of supplemental materials.
- Disc #1: The Film
- New, restored high-definition digital transfer
- Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack
- Original theatrical trailer
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
- Disc #2: The Supplements
- Exclusive new audio conversation between Van Sant and filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) (124 minutes)
- The Making of My Own Private Idaho, a new documentary featuring key crew members (42 minutes
- Kings of the Road, a new video interview with film scholar Paul Arthur in which he discusses Van Sant’s adaptation of Orson Welles and Shakespeare (44 minutes)
- Video conversation between producer Laurie Parker and River Phoenix’s sister Rain (19 minutes)
- Deleted Scenes (13 minutes)
- Audio conversation between author and screenwriter JT LeRoy (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, screenplay for Van Sant’s Elephant) and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation), also including Van Sant (53 minutes)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
- 64-page Booklet
- featuring new essays by JT LeRoy and film critic Amy Taubin, a 1991 article by Lance Loud, and reprinted interviews with Van Sant, Phoenix, and Reeves
- $39.95 suggested retail
Reviewed March 10, 2005 / Revised October 26, 2021