My Own Private Idaho [DVD]
Director : Gus Van Sant
Screenplay : Gus Van Sant
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : River Phoenix (Mike Waters), Keanu Reeves (Scott Favor), James Russo (Richard Waters), William Richert (Bob Pigeon), Rodney Harvey (Gary), Chiara Caselli (Carmella), Michael Parker (Digger), Jessie Thomas (Denise), Flea (Budd), Grace Zabriskie (Alena), Tom Troupe (Jack Favor), Udo Kier (Hans)
For his third feature film, writer/director Gus Van Sant was finally able to bring to the screen a story he had been trying to tell for years about Portland street hustlers. His critical and commercial success with Drugstore Cowboy (1989) had made him a name in the burgeoning American independent film scene of the early 1990s, giving him just enough clout to make the projects he wanted to make. The resulting film, My Own Private Idaho, is a unique, poetic work of great intimacy and sadness. Filled with lyrical imagery and a tone both poignant and gritty, it is alternately funny, touching, and disheartening, and to top it all off, parts of it are adapted from Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V, right down to the use of iambic pentameter in the dialogue.
Although Van Sant had originally wanted to fill the entire cast with actual Portland hustlers, many of whom he had become friends with over the years, he ended up casting the main roles with two young stars, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. At the time, Phoenix was truly coming into his own, mixing up serious roles in films such as The Mosquito Coast (1986) and Running on Empty (1988) with lighter fare like A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Phoenix had always been a brooding teen idol, more James Dean than Tom Cruise, and his role as a narcoleptic gay teenage prostitute in My Own Private Idaho helped solidify his credibility as a serious actor willing to take risky roles over covers on Teen Beat.
The casting of Keanu Reeves was a little more chancy, as he was so deeply associated at the time with the stoned slacker-heroes of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988), a persona he had perfected with more serious intention in Ron Howard's Parenthood (1989). It was easy to forget, though, that he had first made his mark with a powerful performance as a disaffected teenager in moral crisis in Tim Hunter's River's Edge (1986). Throughout the years, Reeves has been slammed by many for his supposed inability to act, and it is true that some of his roles have had a strangely wooden quality. However, anyone who professes that he has no talent needs to see him here, as his performance as a privileged mayor's son turned prostitute is revelatory. In fact, Reeves has one of the film's best (and most subtle) performative moments near the end, when his character sits at one funeral and watches another, his face a steely and complex mixture of both contempt and envy.
Much of My Own Private Idaho was adapted from Shakespeare's Henry IV, with Reeves' Scott Favor playing the Prince Hal character, a young man deliberately and obstinately running from his father's expectations only to turn around in the end and embrace them (a plot turn derived from Henry V). The Falstaff character is Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a former hustler and thief who lords over a motley bunch of young street kids who look up to him as some kind of father figure.
Scott's best friend is Mike Waters (Phoenix), a fellow hustler who doesn't have a privileged background. Rather, he is a young man looking for his home, where he also hopes to find his identity. While Scott has deliberately chosen his place in life, Mike seems to have fallen into his, and his narrative trajectory deals with his search for his roots, specifically his mother who left many years earlier. Although Mike runs with the same crowd as Scott, he appears to be on the margins of the marginalized. He is also secretly in love with Scott, which means that his best friend is but one more emotional connection he might be denied. Mike is thus the film's tragic figure, particularly when the narrative winds to its third act and Scott finds romance with an Italian girl (Chiara Caselli) and assumes his place in the upper crust. Mike's narcolepsy also plays into his tragedy, as he unwittingly goes to sleep during stressful moments, making his life a confused puzzle of too many missing pieces.
My Own Private Idaho has a somewhat meandering narrative, and at times Van Sant breaks off from the main narrative story to focus on the lives of the street kids. The film is ultimately about life on the streets, with Mike and Scott being only two drops in a much larger body of experience. Although he couldn't cast the main roles with actual hustlers, Van Sant does fill out the cast with kids from the streets of Portland, which adds a subtle authenticity to the film. The grittiness they bring contrasts sharply with Van Sant's poetic imagery, particularly his dreamlike use of time-lapse photography.
Nothing is quite off limits aesthetically, but Van Sant's wide-ranging artistic openness feels more like a concentrated vision that a random pastiche. Some of his more daring conceits -- like having the front covers of gay porn magazines literally come alive -- work because they are situated so comfortably in a cinematic canvas in which anything goes. Yet, Van Sant never lets the imagery and style overwhelm the characters and their plights. The imagery of My Own Private Idaho is what you remember immediately afterwards, but its emotional intimacy and raw honesty is what makes it unforgettable.
|My Own Private Idaho Criterion Collection Director-Approved Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 1, 2005|
|My Own Private Idaho has been given a gorgeous new anamorphic high-definition transfer from the 35mm interpositive. It is has been nicely framed at 1.78:1, apparently at the request of Van Sant, who supervised the transfer. The MTI Digital Restoration System further cleaned up the image, removing all dirt and debris. Colors are bold and lifelike throughout, and the image is very nicely detailed.|
|The stereo soundtrack has been effectively remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround using the original 35mm stems. The mix remains fairly front-heavy since much of the film is dialogue-driven, but there are some nice surround effects with ambient noise and also with Van Sant's eclectic selection of music.|
|While there is no audio commentary on this two-disc set, there are more than enough supplements to put the film in context. On the second disc, there's a two-hour audio interview with Gus Van Sant by filmmaker Todd Haynes in which they discuss the film from multiple angles, including its long production history, Van Sant's use of two cinematographers, his casting choices, and where the film fits in the "New Queer Cinema" of the early 1990s. For a more specific analysis of the film itself, there's Kings of the Road, a 40-minute video interview with film scholar Paul Arthur, who discusses the film in terms of its allusions of Shakespeare and Orson Welles' Falstaff (1966), as well as its generic connections to the Western and the road movie. The Making of My Own Private Idaho, a new documentary featuring interviews with several key production personnel, goes over a lot of the same ground covered in Haynes' interview with Van Sant. A video conversation between producer Laurie Parker and River Phoenix's sister Rain looks specifically at Phoenix's involvement in the film, and an audio conversation between writer JT LeRoy and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation) analyzes the film in terms of its depiction of street life. There are six deleted scenes, which are presented in anamorphic widescreen, but are still very rough (some are missing bits of audio and image). Lastly, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a 64-page insert book 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.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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