Few of Gus Van Sant’s earlier movies, at least, can be called conventional, but My Own Private Idaho is strikingly unusual for a relatively mainstream film and Hollywood star vehicle, even after 30 years, with its dreamy, not-quite-real atmosphere and unexpectedly gentle treatment of what could’ve been a sensationalised subject.
The first of Van Sant’s features not directly based on another work—though it drew some inspiration from John Rechy’s 1963 novel of male hustlers, City of Night, and some sections are derived from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2—it seems to have been an exceptionally personal project for the writer-director, who’d started writing it in a different form in the 1970s. That shows in the affection with which he treats his characters, in his choice of settings (Van Sant had partly grown up in the Pacific Northwest of the US where the film is largely set and moved back there not long before its production), and above all in his refusal to compromise with expectations.
That’s apparent from the beginning: the film opens on a dictionary definition of ‘narcolepsy’, which might not seem a premise guaranteed to keep the audience awake. The action proper starts in a few moments (following an intertitle reading ‘IDAHO’), on a road in the middle of nowhere—bleak but gorgeous, like so many of the settings in a movie that manages to be grungy and brightly coloured at the same time, both visually and emotionally. Here is Mike Waters (River Phoenix), alone. He consults an old-fashioned pocket watch, counts the seconds. The camera dwells on the landscape; van Sant, like Mike, is in no hurry.
“I always know where I am by the way the road looks,” says Mike. “Like I just know that I’ve been here before… there’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road, I mean exactly like this road.” And soon he falls asleep on the asphalt, his legs trembling, like a mini-death. Much later, we’ll be alone with Mike on a road again and notice that the tractor tracks in the field alongside look like more roads, stretching on to the end of life… but in the meantime, the film will follow not Mike’s story so much as Mike’s situation, Mike’s world, through a series of episodes that slowly reveal his inner and outer lives to us.
After another intertitle, ‘SEATTLE’, we learn that Mike is homeless and a male prostitute. He’s hired by a woman, and at her house runs into Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), already a friend. Mike’s impressed by the elegance of her home; he finds a giant shell among her possessions, puts it to his ear and hears waves. It’s clear he’s searching for something beyond the life he now lives, perhaps more in a yearning way than a particularly active one, and this is underlined by frequent memories of his mother inserted into the main narrative, shot in 8mm and blown up to provide a sense of distance and difference.
The film from hereon mostly follows Mike and Scott together, over a period of weeks. They spend time with Bob (William Richert), a homeless Portland man who’s become a kind of leader (and occasional lover) of boys on the street; they visit Mike’s brother Richard (James Russo) in an attempt to find out more about Mike’s long-gone mother; they even briefly end up in Italy.
Along the way there are some dazzling sequences, starting with the titles—intercutting Mike and his mother with some ravishing shots of empty Northwestern country, all accompanied by The Cattle Call from 1934 by a yodelling Tex Owens (My Own Private Idaho’s soundtrack is nothing if not diverse, startling and often very funny). Perhaps the most famous single scene is a later one with Scott and Mike sitting over a campfire, much of it written by Phoenix, who (perhaps surprisingly, given Van Sant’s prominence as a queer filmmaker) made Mike’s character more overtly gay. His casual rejection by Scott (“two guys can’t love each other”) becomes one of the emotional touchpoints of the movie.
Just as impactful, however, is a triptych of more flamboyant sequences based closely on Shakespeare, with Scott corresponding to Prince Hal (the later Henry V) and Bob to Sir John Falstaff. First, in a magnificently choreographed scene in a deserted building where Bob and his gang of young men plot to rob a group of music promoters; then there’s the robbery itself; and finally, best of all, a scene where Scott/Hal encourages Bob/Falstaff to retell the story of the escapade in ever more exaggerated form. Here Scott tellingly puts the spotlight on himself, and the laughs he gains are at Bob’s expense; while Scott is certainly not a “bad guy” in the normal sense, and indeed not a single character is treated by My Own Private Idaho without empathy, the film makes it consistently clear that he uses people for his own diversion. He’s a rich kid, the son of the mayor in fact, and set to shortly inherit a fortune; while the other street boys he hangs out with have little choice but to live rough and sell themselves, he’s slumming it.
Here, as at several points in My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant not only draws a story from King Henry IV (just as Orson Welles reworked it for 1965’s Chimes at Midnight) but also gives his cast quasi-Shakesperean language. It’s sometimes amusingly updated, as when “a fair hot wench in flame-color’d taffeta” becomes “a fair hustler in black leather”, at other times simply antique in its tone, as when Scott declares of his father the mayor that “I almost get sick thinking that I am a son to him”.
Van Sant has great fun with this—as will audiences in on the joke—though if you see My Own Private Idaho for the first time without being aware of the Henry IV connection (as I did originally) it can be a little befuddling. There are many other droll touches on display too. For example, a statue entitled ‘The Coming of the White Man’ with a barn that drops from the sky Oz-like at a moment of orgasm. Also the character names: Scott Favor is clearly favoured, Mike Waters is as unsettled as water, Bob Pigeon is an opportunist scavenger. The name of a German client, Hans Kline (wonderfully played by Udo Kier, who in a scene of hilarious camp performs his own song “Der Adler” while cradling a table lamp), could even be a pun on Freud’s “Little Hans” and the vogue for psychoanalytical “explanations” of sexuality.
But such sly semi-hidden meanings never dominate the film, any more than the frequently exquisite cinematography by John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards does, or the occasional cheekiness (young men coming to life on the covers of magazines like Male Call and G-String, the final intertitle exhortation to ‘HAVE A NICE DAY’). Van Sant isn’t a director who says “look at me”—his film is all about the people in it, particularly Mike and Scott. They are a fascinating odd couple, each essentially wanting the other’s life and background… but perhaps not really wanting it, at least not if they knew what it involved.
Reeves’s performance is hard to assess. He seems to alternate between being wooden and being OTT, but then the movie isn’t naturalistic, and Phoenix’s superb realisation of Mike is equally excessive in a different way. He’s miserable but full of energy when he’s not collapsing into narcolepsy; every moment of his performance is intensely physical, his hunched crouches speaking volumes about Mike’s relationship with the world.
Among the supporting class, Richert is a memorable, believable and moving Bob, Russo is powerful as Mike’s brother, and (in a largely male-oriented film) Chiara Caselli also draws attention as a young woman Mike and Scott meet in Italy.
Perhaps the most emotionally remarkable passage in the entire film is one focusing on Mike, though, and indeed not a particularly famed scene. In it, Mike reads aloud a postcard he’s received from his mother. “Dear honey,” he recites, “found a job in the lounge of the Family Tree in Snake River.” (The name of the hotel is significant in a film where family rarely appear, but feelings about them are ever-present.)
“If you’re ever out this way, look me up. Love, Mom.” And then—in a moment of brilliance—he continues reading out loud not her message, but the blurb printed on the postcard: “Rooms, phones, colour TV. Wall-to-wall carpeting, and efficiently controlled electric heat…” It’s as if he is making no distinction between his mother’s words and the hotel’s self-promotion; it is all part of a sought-after, unattainable world. As Roger Ebert wrote, “the achievement of this film is that it wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion and no contrived test for the heroes to pass; this is a movie about two particular young men, and how they pass their lives.”
Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly called it “a rich, audacious experience”, Dave Kehr in The Chicago Tribune described it as “a film of breathtakingly free and constant movement”. Although it wasn’t exactly a smash hit (hardly to be expected) and was overlooked at the Academy Awards, it was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and has since become one of the most highly-regarded movies of the period’s indie renaissance. For Van Sant, it concluded his so-called ‘Portland trilogy’, and though he went on to direct slightly more mainstream fare like To Die For (1995) and Finding Forrester (2000), as well as the more commercially successful Good Will Hunting (1997), he’s remained an indie at heart, and a lauded one.
And it’s a sign of his mastery that so much which could go wrong in My Own Private Idaho doesn’t. The stylistic swings, while obvious, are not disorienting; the Shakespeare-derived sections, which run the risk of seeming pretentious or simply silly, work because they’re so heartfelt and because none about the film makes any pretence to gritty realism.
Instead, it’s a movie of passing moments and fragmentary thoughts; sometimes it distorts the familiar (as with “America the Beautiful” played on steel guitar at the end), at other times it treats the out-and-out weird (like Hans’s song-and-dance routine) as completely normal. There is no big underlying meaning, but for Van Sant there’s clearly a beauty in the messy lives and inconclusive adventures of its protagonists, and of even the most incidental characters they encounter. He wants to show us that beauty, and he succeeds.
USA | 1991 | 104 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • ITALIAN • GERMAN
Cast & Crew
director: Gus Van Sant.
writer: Gus Van Sant (based on ‘Henry IV, Part 1’, ‘Henry IV, Part 2’ & ‘Henry V’ by William Shakespeare).
starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo & William Richert.