"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Own Private Idaho

They say that the best stories are right in front of our eyes. No one is more aware of this idea than filmmaker Gus Van Sant. In his first two motion pictures, Mala Noche (1986) and Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Van Sant skillfully legitimized everyday existence on film by presenting fascinating explorations into street life. Coming from a well-to-do middle class family, he became interested in the street life of Portland that he saw as "a secret world I knew nothing about." These films never exploited or romanticized their rather seedy subject matter, but viewed the characters impartially, leaving it up to the viewer to make a value judgment. Both films, however, were based on other people's work — a warm-up for Van Sant's next film, My Own Private Idaho (1991). This feature is arguably his best effort to date because it is his most personal project, a labor of love that shows a filmmaker at the apex of his powers.

Idaho is an ambitious blend of Shakespeare's Henry IV and the lives of Portland street hustlers. The film focuses on the adventures of two social outcasts. Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) is a modern-day Prince Hal, a rich kid from an affluent family slumming with street folk as an act of rebellion against his father, the mayor of Portland. It is only a few days until he turns 21 years old, at which point he will inherit a lot of money. His close friend, Mike Waters (River Phoenix), is a gay, narcoleptic street hustler prone to lapsing into a deep sleep during times of stress at the most inopportune moments. Mike is the son of a mysterious waitress, (we only catch glimpses of her through his grainy, Super-8 reminiscences) and this results in a desire to track her down. It is a quest that takes both hustlers from the streets of Portland to America's heartland, as symbolized by Idaho, and finally a trip to Italy. But the film and Mike keep returning to "both the literal Idaho of his early years and the utopian Idaho of rooted love."

Early drafts of the screenplay were set on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles with working titles like Blue Funk and Minions of the Moon. Then, Van Sant read John Rechy's 1963 novel, City of Night and decided to change the setting to Portland. Idaho's screenplay originally consisted of two separate scenarios: the first was called Modern Days recounting Mike's story and a second one that updated the Henry IV plays with Scott's story. Van Sant realized that he could blend the two stories together a la the "cut up" technique used by writer, William S. Burroughs. In essence, this method involves various story fragments and ideas mixed and matched together to form a unique story. The idea to combine the two scenarios formed in Van Sant's head after watching Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1966). "I thought that the Henry IV plays were really a street story," Van Sant once said in an interview. "I also knew this fat guy named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff and who was crazy about hustler boys. It was then that I decided to combine the stories." Van Sant gives the Bard's dialogue a streetwise twist to produce amusing situations where high culture meets low culture. The effect produces a kind of absurdist feel to the proceedings and reinforces the timelessness of Shakespeare's prose by giving it a modern facelift. Van Sant got the idea for Mike's narcolepsy from a man who was a guide of sorts when the director was gathering material for the film. According to the director, he always looked like he was about to fall asleep.

Van Sant ended up renaming the screenplay My Own Private Idaho — derived from the B-52's song of the same name which he had heard numerous times while visiting Idaho in the early 1980s. At first, no studio would touch the script because of its potentially controversial and off-beat subject matter. After Drugstore Cowboy received such favorable critical raves and awards, studios started to show some interest. However, they all wanted their own versions made and not Van Sant's, so he was back to square one. This frustration prompted the filmmaker to attempt the feature on a shoestring budget with a cast of actual street kids filling out the roles. Fortunately, New Line Cinema, the same production company behind the very successful A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, were in the process of branching out into producing "art house" films and decided to back Van Sant's vision with a $2.5 million budget.

Once the financial backing was secured, Van Sant faced the problem of whom he wanted cast in the two central roles. He decided to send the script to the agents of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, figuring that their agents would reject the script. He assumed that these up-and-coming actors would probably not want to take a chance with such an unusual film. However, Reeves' agent was amicable to the project, but Phoenix's agent wouldn't even show the screenplay to the young actor. Not to be deterred, Van Sant got the idea for Reeves to personally deliver the film's treatment to Phoenix at his home in Florida. Reeves did so over the Christmas holidays, riding his motorcycle from his family home in Canada to the Phoenix family ranch in Micanopy, Florida, outside Gainesville. Reeves was no stranger to Phoenix, having worked previously with River on Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death (1990). Once Van Sant got by their agents and talked to the two actors he realized that they were up to the challenge. Reeves and Phoenix had their doubts about such a risky venture but decided to take the plunge and made a pact to do the film.

It is easy to understand the actors’ apprehension in getting involved with Van Sant's film. How would Hollywood react to these two "rising stars" appearing as hustlers in a "gay" film? For Phoenix, it was the perfect project to experiment and to grow as an actor. It was also the perfect role to shed, once and for all, his "teen idol" image and the baggage that accompanied such a perception. Van Sant never saw his film as a story about gay street life, but rather "about an area of society—prostitution—that's not defined in terms of gay or straight." Originally, the screenplay was rather nebulous in its view of whether Mike was gay or not. It was Phoenix who decided to make Mike gay and this change only strengthened the character and improved the film.

Idaho is Van Sant's own unique spin on the road film. The motion picture opens and ends with Mike on the road — a deserted, picturesque stretch somewhere in Idaho. In both scenes Mike delivers a monologue, a Kerouacian ode to the road before passing out in a narcoleptic fit. There is something about this road that induces Mike's seizures. Perhaps it is his observation that when looked at in a certain way (with the visual aid of an iris lens) the road seems like "a fucked-up face, like it's saying, 'Have a nice day.’” Mike's narcolepsy is an important motif in the film. It is the first image we see, appearing highlighted in a dictionary. His black outs act as a portal that allows us to enter Mike's world: the private Idaho of the film's title which offers us glimpses into his dreams, his aspirations, and gives us clues to his past. Mike’s narcoleptic escapades are comprised of fragmented, "visionary" footage: fast moving clouds in vast, blue skies; salmon jumping up stream; and old, scratchy, 8mm film of Mike's trailer park past. These images were amassed by Van Sant and his cinematographers, Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell who, at first didn't really know what to do with this abstract footage, but Mike's fractured past provided the ideal vehicle for these scenes.

Mike's fractured past is actually a microcosm of the overall structure of Idaho which blends all sorts of styles of filmmaking. Again, this approach harkens back to Burroughs' "cut up" technique as the film shifts from the surreal, with a scene that involves the covers of male porno magazines coming to life, to a parodic, mock documentary style where anonymous hustlers recall horror stories of their first dates. Van Sant even imparts a kind of dreamy, romanticism to the film with beautiful vistas and rolling landscapes captured via time-lapse photography. All of this never becomes too conceited which is due in part to Van Sant's direction and the actors’ (in particular, Phoenix) ability to impart a certain amount of humor — whether it is through Phoenix's comic asides, referring to Idaho as "the potato state," or Van Sant's inversion of cliché images and the use of music to simultaneously pay homage and parody the idea of the open road. Imagine William S. Burroughs rewriting Jack Kerouac's On the Road and you get an idea of the tone that Van Sant is trying to establish.

Like Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, Van Sant's films mix professional thespians with non-actors effortlessly. The rather eclectic cast (that features 1960s cult actor and Andy Warhol regular, Udo Kier; Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea, and director of Winter Kills, William Richert) fill out their respective roles admirably, but the film really belongs to River Phoenix. Mike is clearly the heart of the film with Scott's story taking up very little screen time. With his narcoleptic flashbacks, we see most of the film through Mike's eyes. As one critic described him, "at once pathetic flotsam, passive dreamer, and true visionary." He yearns for love and eternal friendship from Scott in an incredibly touching and tragic scene where the two are sitting by a campfire on the road to Idaho. Mike tries to articulate his feelings for Scott when he says, "I love you and you don't pay me." Mike conveys a feeling that Scott could never imagine, let alone feel. This scene, which Phoenix rewrote with Reeves input, includes incredible character defining dialogue and "provides countless clues to the interior depths" of Mike's character. This scene is the highlight of the film and really showcases Phoenix's formidable acting talents. Keanu Reeves, as in most of his other films doesn't really act, but rather reacts to what other characters do as this scene so adequately demonstrates. While Phoenix suggests so much by doing so little, Reeves remains what one critic described as a "reactive slate." Reeves reportedly was not comfortable with this aspect of the film as he said in an interview, "I'm not against gays or anything, but I won't have sex with guys. I would never do that on film. We did a little of it in Idaho and, believe me, it was hard work. Never again.”

Phoenix delivers an intelligent performance by giving life and depth to the character of Mike. He clearly enjoyed Van Sant's relaxed approach to his actors which drew such good performances from them.
“Gus is very open to collaboration. He doesn’t direct in a show-and-tell style but instead asks questions and brings it out of you like a good psychiatrist might. He allows you to be responsible for your role. Directors can be very frightened of collaborative things with actors. When we talked, we cut a deal where I had complete creative control. I was curious because I had a lot of input and he was very open about my suggestions. So this collaboration became my apprenticeship with Gus.”
To fulfill his end of the deal, the young actor put hours of research into his role. "I spent quite a few hours on the streets in Portland between eight and four in the morning," Phoenix remembers. However, he may have immersed himself too far into the role as Van Sant commented, "he seemed to be changing into this character." One of the film's cinematographers, Eric Allan Edwards also noticed a change in the actor. "He looked like a street kid. In a very raw way he wore that role." And it shows in the way Phoenix looks in the film with a combination of messed up hair, bedraggled clothes, and "bruised good looks." His rumpled appearance and mannerisms make one think of James Dean's tortured teen, Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Like Dean, Phoenix can suggest emotion from simple movements and gestures. Idaho enabled Phoenix to shed the pretty-boy/Teen Beat image that had dogged him throughout his career and portray a character that could really exist. His performance in Idaho, with its willingness to take chances, ranks right up there with some of the great performances of our time and makes one realize what a talent has been lost in his death.
Van Sant's film received largely positive reviews. Film critic 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.” Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review, praised the performances of the two lead actors: "The performances, especially by the two young stars, are as surprising as they are sure. Mr. Phoenix (Dogfight) and Mr. Reeves (of the two Bill and Ted comedies) are very fine in what may be the two best roles they'll find in years. Roles of this density, for young actors, do not come by that often.” In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Phoenix's performance: "The campfire scene in which Mike awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you've seen him before: it's a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once.”

J. Hoberman, in his review for the Village Voice, wrote, "While Phoenix vanishes with reckless triumph into his role, Reeves stands, or occasionally struts, uneasily beside his, unable to project even the self-mocking wit of Matt Dillon's star turn in Drugstore Cowboy.” However, Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "What plot it has is borrowed, improbably, from Henry IV, and whenever anyone manages to speak an entire paragraph, it is usually a Shakespearean paraphrase. But this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film.” In his review for The New Yorker, Terrence Rafferty wrote, "Van Sant has stranded the actor in a movie full of flat characters and bad ideas, but Phoenix walks through the picture, down the road after road after road, as if he were surrounded by glorious phantoms.”

My Own Private Idaho didn't break any box office records or win any Academy Awards, but it has endured. For a film that made so many studio executives nervous, Idaho doesn't go for the shock value of its subject matter. Van Sant presents his hustlers as real, three-dimensional characters with humanity and the capacity for tenderness and humor. What could have become exploitive trash in the hands of a lesser talent, becomes a touching, poetic quest for family and identity that aspires to a level that most films only dream of attaining.


"A Brief Life." Premiere. March 1994.

Block, Adam. "Inside Outsider Gus Van Sant." The Advocate. September 24, 1991.

Elder, Sean. "Young Actors Go Wild with Gus Van Sant." Elle. October 1991.

Ehrenstein, David. "Back to Idaho". The Advocate. April 12, 2005.

Fuller, Graham. “Gus Van Sant: Swimming Against the Current.” Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and My Own Private Idaho. Faber & Faber. 1993.

Greenberg, Harvey. "My Own Private Idaho." Film Quarterly. Fall 1992.

Lyons, Donald. Independent Visions. Ballatine Books. 1994.

Robb, Brian J. River Phoenix: A Short Life. Perennial. 1995.


  1. I had some mention this film to me recently. I think I saw it years ago. I don't remember that much about it though. I enjoyed your write-up. It makes me interested in checking it out again.

  2. I saw this film in the UK when it appeared many years ago. Quite something on the big screen. A beautiful film and a fantastic tribute, here. Hans.

  3. Keith:

    You should definitely check it out again. It's one of my all-time faves and Gus Van Sant's best film to date, IMO.

    Hans Adams:

    Thank you for stopping by and for the kind words. I too had the pleasure of seeing this film on the big screen and it really enhanced all of the atmospheric time-lapse photography used throughout.