Tuesday Editor’s Pick: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

by on May 1, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue May 8 at 6:15 at at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


FSLC continues their cumulative journey through “50 Years of the New York Film Festival” highlights. If you haven’t already, you need to read Dan Callahan’s deeply considered, semi-confessional feature on Idaho, followed by Matt Connolly’s meta-auteurist career profile of the stylistically protean director.


Gus Van Sant’s third feature film (technically, his fourth) is a landmark of both American independent filmmaking and art-fag aestheticism. It’s also the ultimate fetish object in the cult of River Phonenix, the youthful blonde actor whose tragically early death (drugs) came shortly after the release of Idaho.


Here’s a late interview with Phoenix, who’s a lot less charming here than he normally was on-screen, but it gives you an idea of what his attitude towards his art and career was like at the end. Asked to sum up the vagaries of movie stardom, Phoneix responds: “I found myself being blown by America’s film corporations.” Not coincidentally, that’s the first scene in Idaho.



The money shot, if you will, from from Idaho:


Dave Kehr writes one for the history books in the Chicago Tribune:

Beautifully wrought, darkly funny and finally devastating, “My Own Private Idaho“ almost single-handedly revives the notion of personal filmmaking in the United States. As the title suggests, this new film by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy“) is an intensely subjective one, mixing fantasy and autobiography, public texts (including great hunks of William Shakespeare`s “Henry IV“plays) and private speculations. There are corners of the film that will remain impossible to illuminate, and yet this sprinkling of enigma, of the unknowable and unreadable, is what gives the movie its force and staying power.


There is not much more to the plot than that, but this is a film of breathtakingly free and constant movement. The device of Mike`s narcolepsy allows Van Sant to make wildly impulsive, radical transitions (Mike falls asleep and awakes in another scene, another state or even in another country). And more than that, it allows Van Sant to create complex, poetic montage sequences that, in mingling dream and reality through poetically related images, pick up where Sergei Eisenstein`s most extreme experiments in associational editing left off back in the 1920s. So graceful is Van Sant`s work here, so elegant and expressive its juxtaposition of open and closed spaces, of warm and cool colors and rough and smooth textures, that it immediately surpasses much of the experimental filmmaking of the last 20 years. And yet the sequence, as formally inventive as it is, is perfectly comprehensible in narrative terms, setting up Mike`s character with a clarity and precision that would require reams of conventional dialogue.


There is no more heartbreaking image in recent cinema than that of an exhausted Phoenix curling up to sleep on a sidewalk, oblivious to the shards of broken glass that lie next to his cheek. This is a very rich, very sympathetic piece of work.



Michael Atkinson for The Village Voice:

Gus Van Sant searched for and found a new vocabulary in this utterly seminal, decade-defining punk of a movie, as restless, densely inhabited, and full of half-cocked brilliance as a tweak house in springtime. The ostensible subject at hand is Seattle street hustlers, but what results is a magical mystery tour of deadpan élan, Shakespearean pastiche and post-teen ardor for living below the radar. Fourteen years later, there is much to consider: the Henry Vquasi-re-creations, the suddenly mysterious sine qua non of Keanu Reeves, the Falstaffian wonder of screenwriter William Richert (brought on board, it is said, by River Phoenix after A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon was birthed from Richert’s novel), Van Sant’s magnificent rediscovery of the Northwestern landscape, and most of all, River Phoenix. As a comically weary, narcoleptic nowhere guy constantly awakening in strange places, Phoenix was his generation’s great short-lived cultural axiom, wary and spontaneous and so submerged in his movie life there’s no sense he even knew we were watching.



Amy Taubin for the Criterion Collection:

What is striking about Idaho today in light of Van Sant’s later films is its extraordinary hybridity. Where Elephant (2003), Gerry (2002), and Psycho (2000) are structured by a single daring formal device—the extended tracking shots in Elephant and Gerry; the shot-by-shot mimicry of Hitchcock’s original in PsychoIdaho is a collage that includes even a kitchen sink and some Little Dutch Boy cleanser to scrub it down. Van Sant mixes and matches scenes of documentary-style realism with campy musical set pieces, improvised dialogue with bowdlerized Shakespeare, dream sequences shot in grainy Super-8mm with 35mm vistas of the Pacific Northwest, and, on the soundtrack, Rudy Vallee with The Pogues. The main source materials for Idaho’s screenplay were two completely separate scripts and a short story, all written by Van Sant. One of the scripts was a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV.


Van Sant ties these various elements together by filtering the entire narrative through Mike’s snoozing consciousness. The irony is that the narcoleptic Mike is among the most unconscious characters to ever hit the screen. Abandoned by his mother early in life, he was raised by his brutish brother/father (with echoes of Chinatown, although, since Mike’s origins are below the poverty line, his incestuous parentage is no Greek tragedy, just an extra oedipal wrinkle in an already disenfranchised existence). Mike’s narcolepsy is his defense against his childhood agony of abandonment. Anything that reminds him of his lost mother triggers a violent psychosomatic reaction. He shakes so violently he looks like he’s going to explode and then keels over in a stupor. Idaho’s fragmented editing style—its heterogeneous visual associations and dense layering of words, sounds, and music—and its split-second shifts between the burlesqued and the heartfelt, evoke Mike’s confusion of inside and outside, past and present, dreams and waking life.


Taubin also interviewed Van Sant for Sight & Sound. Van Sant:

It’s my favorite. I’ve seen it probably ten times and it’s much better if you see it more than once. There are all sorts of things that become apparent on multiple viewings – I still see stuff that I didn’t know was there; serendipitous things that are there for a purpose, that are put in, ultimately, by my subconscious. Because when we’re making the film, we’re not doing intellectually, or at least, I’m not.


Read Taubin’s complete Sight & Sound feature by clicking on the images to enlarge:



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy were both certainly good, but this third feature from Gus Van Sant–who’s working for the first time with his own original material–is even better: a simultaneously heartbreaking and exhilarating road movie about two male hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) in the Pacific northwest. The first is a narcoleptic from a broken home, while the second is the son of the mayor of Portland; the one without a family is essentially looking for one while the one with a family is mainly in flight from it. The stylistic eclecticism is so far-ranging that it may take some getting used to, but Van Sant’s poetic imagination and feeling for his characters are so lyrically focused that almost everything works, and even the parts that show some strain–such as an extended hommage to Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight that’s stitched into the plot like crazy-quilt patchwork–may excite you nonetheless for their audacity. Phoenix has certainly never been better, and Reeves does his best with a part that suffers from consisting largely of Shakespeare’s Hal as filtered through Welles. One of the movie’s smallest accomplishments is providing the best metaphor for sexual orgasm to come along in years; one of its biggest is justifying an arsenal of road-movie conceits that until now seemed exhausted.


Dan Callahan’s feature deals extensively with the campfire scene and Phoenix’s reinterpretation of it. Compare the final scene with its conception in the original screenplay (below):

And the version of that scene in the original screenplay (click to enlarge):

Donald Lyons in Film Comment (Sept 1991):

“I am a connossieur of roads,” Phoenix’s Mike muses at the very end of the movie. “I have been tasting roads all my life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.” Van Sant has reanimated the tired tropes of the road movie by giving them a wholly new meaning – the road as Whitmanesque/Twainesque ribbon leading to a never-perhaps-attainably unity with the author of being. Mike, looking back at Portland, could say with Huck Finn, ‘I been there before.” Idaho is the “territory” he lights out for, but Mike’s Idaho is really at least as much an interior as a literal terrain. His compulsion to hug, to impose upon the bosom of the road, echoes Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” But Mike knows the landscape’s darker colors, too.


Portland cinematographers Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell have risen to Van Sant’s concept with images luminous and numinous; the very clouds and sky and land seem to glow from within. And Van Sant’s alertness to comic possibility deflects any looming heaviness. It is all richly American ‘ “America the Beautiful” (one mere element in the complex score) begins to sound when Mike looks out a suburban john’s window and murmurs “Backyard!” just before swooning (the john, a woman, reminded him of his mother); we hear it finally over the last road images.


[…] In his tender watchfulness for holiness in odd places, in his steady gaze at the awful absences of love, in his unjudging attention to obsession, Van Sant is the American Bresson.


To read Donald Lyons’ complete Film Comment feature, click on the images below:


Another Van Sant interview, from Vogue of all places:




Click here to read about James Franco’s installation art piece culled from 100 minutes of the film’s outtakes, at The Guardian. Says Franco of the film (which he elected to his Top 10 Criterion releases):

Gus is the best. Idaho was one of the first movies with which I fell in love. I would watch it repeatedly when I was a teenager. River Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime, original and inspiring. As a young actor, I needed nothing more than this performance for inspiration. The film is a collage of techniques, plots, and themes, expertly wound together as only Van Sant is able to do.


Michael Nordine for Hammer to Nail:

My Own Private Idaho is first and foremost a road movie. It’s also a loose adaptation of parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V in which a homeless kingpin replaces a portly knight and a gay street hustler stands in for to the heir to the throne. If this all sounds exceptionally strange, even for Van Sant, it is. But it’s also one of his most visually sophisticated outings to date, as well as an exceedingly interesting take on (and departure from) its source material. The actors are frequently posed in static sexual positions, with Van Sant jumping between several shots per second in strangely affecting, still-life montages; the sky moves sideways and backwards over unmoving landscapes; and, as an effect of all this, we’re made to feel not unlike the narcoleptic Mike as he drifts in and out of consciousness. This is all in service of Van Sant’s portrayal of physical and spiritual homelessness, of constant movement masking inertia within. My Own Private Idaho is populated by orphans, prodigal sons, and other lost souls for whom dancing around a trashcan fire or painting other peoples’ families while living in an RV is an adequate substitute for maintaining bonds with one’s own family.


Nearly everyone in the film does whatever he (and, more rarely, she) can do to distract himself from this fundamental loneliness, and often these diversions are sexual. So unlike, say, Elephant and Last Days, whose homosexual acts seem out of place and perhaps even just thrown in for the hell of it, the tendency among the men of this film to turn to each other for affection feels like a natural outgrowth of their fraternal bonds—they’ve no one else. This is especially true of Mike and Scott, but even here there’s a rejection: Mike makes himself as vulnerable as can be—at a campfire no less; as with an allusion to a man getting shot while watching Rio Bravo, this seems an intentional subversion of the cowboy myth which may be seen as a sort of thematic forerunner to Brokeback Mountain—and is again left out in the cold. It’s one of the few times we see him truly reach out, but far from his only disappointment.


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