Judge Brett Cullum is, sadly, still stuck on Planet Claire, or else he, too, might have his own private Idaho.
Scott Favor: I only have sex with a guy for money.
A poor boy looking for his mother and a family, and a rich boy running away from his father looking for a way to escape. It sounds like the basis for a simple story, until you realize My Own Private Idaho is a tale of two male hustlers told in a fractured style, at times with dialogue that mocks Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. Criterion has a penchant for picking the best movies from auteurs, then heaping on the extras so we get to see them in a new light. For Gus Van Sant this is probably his most personal movie; one he was fighting to make even before Drugstore Cowboy was an independent hit. The movie also has the best performance from the late River Phoenix ever caught on film, so it's no surprise My Own Private Idaho can now be found on the Criterion label.
Facts of the Case
Mike Waters (River Phoenix, Stand By Me) and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) live as male hustlers on the streets of Portland. Mike is narcoleptic, given to bouts of deep sleep brought on by stress or memories of his long-lost mother. Scott is the son of the mayor of Portland, and is due to inherit a great fortune when he turns twenty-one. Mike hustles to survive, but Scott seems to be reveling in rebelling. They are best friends, and My Own Private Idaho chronicles their adventures as they look for Mike's mother and come of age. Half the movie deals with Mike, and his longing to find and connect with his family. The other half deals with Scott coming to terms with both his real father and his self-appointed street father Bob (William Richert, The Man in The Iron Mask, director of River's A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and Winter Kills).
Back in 1991 I took a friend of mine named Scott to see My Own Private Idaho. Scott had a rough time growing up (to put it mildly). I had helped him escape from a rehab facility he claimed was terribly cruel one night a couple of years before. His parents had put him there after learning about his lifestyle. He was a male hustler at one time, and we had no idea what this movie was about or would be like. At the end of the film I looked over at him, and noticed his face was wet. He had been moved, and we both stumbled out of the theatre awestruck. We were reeling from the realization that we had actually seen two major stars in a movie that dealt with this kind of subject material. Not only did it have the nerve to show these boys and their lifestyle, but it passed no judgment, as most Hollywood fare doubtlessly would have done. There was obviously a lot of love put in to the project.
Gus Van Sant started off as a painter. About mid-way through art school he started turning towards film making. You can see his art school background in My Own Private Idaho. Many shots are purely there for compositional beauty, but they also create a larger landscape for him to paint his pictures on. The movie drifts in and out of fantasy worlds, where hustlers speak in iambic pentameter or hop on a plane to Rome without any thought of passports. All of this seems to be told from Mike's narcoleptic viewpoint, with strange edits, blackouts, and powerful montages of varying film stock. It's beautifully put together, and was revolutionary in the way it told its story. For all the pomp and circumstance afforded to The Silence of the Lambs that same year, here was a film that dared to go to much darker places and truly subvert the moral majority or any sense of "family values." Despite arthouse machinations and a cool indie feel, My Own Private Idaho was a film that conveyed a very palpable need and longing for love and acceptance.
The actual shooting script for the film was cobbled together from three separate stories and scripts that Van Sant had chosen. One story recast Scott Favor as Prince Hal in Henry IV, with Bob appearing as the Falstaff character (the leader of a merry band of thieves). This is the part of the movie where the actors rhyme and seem to speak in old English styles. Reeves handled this all quite well, and I always point to My Own Private Idaho when people try to tell me Keanu can't act. He's amazing, touching, and achingly beautiful in what I consider his best role to date. The second story Van Sant heaped into the mix was about Hans (Udo Kier, Blade, several Andy Warhol projects), a German auto parts dealer who falls in love with a young hustler. Kier is a force of nature in the film, and although most of his narrative ended up being cut, his presence makes the film seem authentically sleazy in the right amounts. I could never get the sequence where he grabs a lamp and does a German cabaret act in a hotel room out of my head. The final story brought to the table was based on a real-life narcoleptic hustler named Mike. River Phoenix made this role his own, and in the end it is his performance that breaks your heart when you watch the film. He is so real and vulnerable, and it's hard to imagine to what heights the young actor would have soared had he lived longer. It's an Oscar-worthy performance that deserved far more recognition than it got. Van Sant encouraged improvisation on the set—it was actually River's idea to have Mike tell Scott he loves him at the campfire. It wasn't in the script, but Phoenix had a natural instinct that provided the scene what it needed.
One thing so striking about the film is the lack of exploitation of the characters. The hustlers and street kids are rough and do things that are illegal, but they care for each other and they aren't viewed as immoral. Given their lurid professions, it's interesting how Van Sant chose to film the sex scenes. They are living stills, and never in motion. It could be seen as a convention that incorporates Mike's narcolepsy, but it comes off more assured than that. They become living statues, locked in poses that leave the viewer with a hollow feeling, rather than evoking the traditional love scene where we might feel privy to something intimate. It's remote, and adds to the overall sense of loneliness. Rather than forging a connection between two characters it negates any relations. Its skillful and aesthetically pleasing all at once. In the end that's the best description of the movie as well. A tone poem on loneliness that is technically breathtaking and emotionally charged simultaneously. Few movies can get to that place.
We could talk about how My Own Private Idaho fit into the canon of revisionist road movies that seemed to pop up everywhere in the '90s. It joined Wild at Heart, The Doom Generation, and Thelma and Louise in re-imagining the genre for all walks of life. There is a great feature on this edition that breaks the movie into that tradition, called Kings of the Road, in which film scholar Paul Arthur discusses the influences on the movie. My Own Private Idaho also contributed to a rise in gay filmmakers who began to unapologetically fill screens with their own visions—Greg Araki, Todd Haynes, and many others. Criterion has provided a two hour audio conversation with Van Sant and Todd Haynes to illustrate that point (it also serves as a commentary on almost every aspect of the film). It's also a notable film for the legacy of River Phoenix. On the disc is a video interview with his sister Rain and producer Laurie Parker. Another extra is an audio conversation between author JT LeRoy, Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation), and Van Sant discussing the film's impact on filmmakers working today. There is also a documentary on the crew, discussing how they made the film. Also included are some deleted scenes in very rough form. Among these is a final shot that would have definitely picked the film's ending up out of total despair. I've been waiting years to see it, and its nice to finally get the chance to view it.
This Criterion release comes with the movie completely remastered and shined up for the digital age. I noticed the infamous "scratch" found in the "barn scene" has actually been cleaned up off the print (which wasn't even done for the film's theatrical release—you can still see it on the trailer, which is not remastered). It's a beauty of a transfer that makes the movie look better than it ever has before. It's not perfect, and I did notice some edge enhancement and the slightest hint of dirt at one point. But it's certainly a valiant effort of restoration and improvement. The sound is a robust 5.1 mix that effectively captures every strain of "America the Beautiful" and "Home on the Range" distorted through the speakers. Not only do you get the two discs with the movie and supplemental features, but there is also a really well done sixty-four page book of photos, magazine articles, and vintage interviews from the film's release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was surprised when a gay friend of mine said he didn't like the movie, and still has no real desire to revisit it. But you know, it's not even really a gay film. Mike and Scott's sexuality comes from being hustlers, and it's no surprise when Keanu's character falls in love with a girl before it's all over. It's a mournful sad movie that doesn't have a traditional happy ending. It's ironic the title came from a campy happy B-52's song. I could see where a lot of people wouldn't find it a happy ride, or even one they could relate to on a literal level (though I refuse to believe it's not resonant on a visceral or emotional level). The subject is hard and handled without any apologies. Take the opening scenes where River Phoenix gets a blow-job from an unattractive John and at the moment of climax sees a barn crashing into a road. How many mainstream Hollywood movies would ever dare to go there even now? But fifteen years ago??? It was mind blowing and shocking. It sill divides a lot of people to this day. A lot of people don't seem to speak the language, and deride it for evoking a feeling more than delivering a straight-forward narrative.
It's Genet meets Fassbinder. My Own Private Idaho was the movie that basically invented grunge in the early '90s. Two achingly beautiful stars come together to deliver their best performances ever. Gus Van Sant pulled something out of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix that few directors could ever have found. It's a beautiful movie that pulsates with life and longing. With painterly visions of Shakespeare mingling with hustlers, it is fiercely original and spellbinding. It has an amazing power, because it's a portrait of longing for something we all need—love and a place to reside that we can call our own. In the end that's what My Own Private Idaho is all about.
My Own Private Idaho is free to remain what it is—an unapologetic classic of outsider cinema that still outclasses most contemporary works for its nerve and artistry. Criterion continues its tradition of bringing us films that demand attention with all the respect they deserve.
Wherever. Whatever. Have a nice day!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Conversation Between Director Gus Van Sant and Filmmaker Todd Haynes
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