‘My Own Private Idaho’ Is Anything but a Conventional Narrative

Gus Van Sant's 'My Own Private Idaho' uses a variety of devices to keep viewers off balance.

Here’s one thing I can say for sure after rewatching Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, 16 years after it first hit the cinemas: it’s nothing like a conventional Hollywood film. I saw it when it first came out, in 1991, but somehow over the years my memory revised it to be an edgy story about two hustlers in the Pacific Northwest, with a wickedly funny sequence in which porn magazines come to life. That’s not an entirely wrong description, so much as it is incomplete: Van Sant does tell an edgy story about hustlers, and the porn magazine scene is pretty much as I remembered it, but what my memory erased about this film is how essentially disruptive it is, presenting anything but a conventional narrative in the usual Hollywood sense.

To start with the most conventional aspect of this film, Mike (River Phoenix) is a gay hustler trying to survive and put his life back together. He suffers from narcolepsy, which adds an extra touch of surrealism to his already fragmented life, because he may undergo an episode at any moment, simply dropping in his tracks and becoming entirely vulnerable to those around him. This means that when he wakes up, perhaps hours later, he may find himself robbed or beaten — or he may be in a completely different city. During these episodes, Mike also has dreams of his childhood, which provide the audience with fragments of his memories of his mother and hint at the disjointed nature of his early life (augmented by a bombshell of a revelation late in the film), which offer a clue to the roots of his current state.

Mike’s best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves) comes from quite a different background: he’s a rich kid slumming with the street hustlers, armed with the knowledge that he has an expansive family safety net to fall back on. There’s a strong bit of social criticism embodied in the stories of Mike and Scott: they may be leading similar lives when we first meet them, but Scott is just enjoying a brief holiday in a liminal space before taking up his pre-ordained adult role, while Mike, through no fault of his own, may be trapped in that life forever.

Mike and Scott have a loose group of hustler friends, who sometimes work together and live in an abandoned hotel. Their unofficial leader is Bob (William Richert), an older and heavier version of themselves. Bob is Falstaff to Scott’s Prince Hal, and while Scott enjoys his good times with the overage bad boy, he has also determined that his days in the street life are numbered: when Scott turns 21, he will inherit a fortune, and return home to Portland to take up his responsibilities as a member of a wealthy and influential family (his father is the mayor of Portland).

Van Sant includes large chunks of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, as filtered through Orson Wells’ Chimes at Midnight, in My Own Private Idaho. It certainly breaks the narrative flow to hear street hustlers speaking in a modernized version of blank verse, dropping in some direct quotes (“I have heard the chimes at midnight”) and re-enacting scenes straight out of the play/film. The fact that some of the young actors can’t quite handle their lines only adds to the disruptive quality of these sequences.

The cinematography of John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, and editing of Curtiss Clayton, also play key roles in keeping the viewer off balance. Beautiful time-lapse photography of clouds are juxtaposed with the essentially tragic nature of Mike’s life, and cuts from extreme wide shots to extreme close-ups defy the conventional progression of wide-medium-close shots codifed in the Hollywood invisible style.

The music (by Bill Stafford) is also a jarring mix, incorporating cowboy ballads like Eddy Arnold’s “The Cattle Call” and Bill Stafford’s “Home on the Range”, and crooner Rudy Vallee’s “Deep Night”, alongside more contemporary songs like Elton John’s “Blue Eyes” and Madonna’s “Cherish”. Even the title cards are unconventional in My Own Private Idaho: each is in a different, bright, solid color, behind plain white text, producing as jarring an jarring effect as if an avant-garde novel suddenly morphed into a children’s picture book.

The 2015 Criterion release of My Own Private Idaho is based on a new 4K digital transfer, and presented in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect radio. This release includes a number of extras, most of which were also included in the 2005 release from Criterion.

The extras included on the disc include illustrated audio conversation (53 min.) between Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, originally recorded in 2004; a 2004 making-of documentary (42 min.) featuring directors of photography John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards and production designer David Brisbin; a 2004 interview (44 min.) with film scholar Paul Arthur, which touches on the influence of the western, the road movie, and “Shakespeare on My Own Private Idaho”; a video conversation, recorded in 2004, between producer Laurie Parker and River Phoenix’s sister Rain Phoenix (19 min.); six deleted scenes; an illustrated discussion, recorded in 2004, between LT LeRoy (Laura Albert) and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette; and the film’s trailer. In addition, the DVD comes in a cardboard slipcase and is accompanied by 60-page illustrated booklet including essays by Amy Taubin, JT LeRoy, and Lance Loud, an interview of Gus Van Sant by River Phoenix, and an interview of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix by Gini Sikes and Paige Powell.

RATING 8 / 10