It was like an After School Special, but like, you know, laced with other things.
— Jonathan Caouette, conversation with JT LeRoy, My Own Private Idaho: Criterion Collection
“My Own Private Idaho” is an imaginary place where one is locked in the arms of love — that is, both protected and free.
— Amy Taubin, “Private Places”
My dad doesn’t know that I’m just a kid. He thinks I’m a threat.
— Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), My Own Private Idaho
“I think River came in character,” says producer Laurie Parker. “He had this sort of being of a person who hadn’t had a bed, necessarily, the night before, and hadn’t washed his clothes in a long time. But it wasn’t the way he looked… He had that internalized sadness and he had that kind of quiet meditative quality that runaway boys have. The sprightliness is a departure a little bit, from the basic state of loneliness.” She speaks carefully, understanding that the words she chooses have weight. The occasion is a “conversation” with Rain Phoenix, as they remember making My Own Private Idaho, for Criterion’s elegant DVD.
The inclusion of the girls’ conversation is striking, as the film is so much about boys — feeling lost, seeking connection, wandering through time and space. Parker and Phoenix’s take on the film is intimate, of course, but also slightly apart, an accumulation of bits and pieces, as they help one another to put them together. River, says Rain, recommended her to director Gus Van Sant for a minor role, resulting her first experience on a set; they share their mutual affection for “the fucked-up face,” the tunnel-visioned image denoting the state of the world for River’s character, the narcoleptic and melancholy, stubbornly hopeful and utterly lovely Mike.
Their memories are sweet, if slightly poignant. As Parker puts it, what made My Own Private Idaho so extraordinary, as a production experience and a film, is that “the barrier of experience wasn’t there, so just that complete innocence and happiness,” and then she pauses, and asks, “It was such a happy movie, wasn’t it?” This as if she doubts her own memory, or just wants the reassurance that it’s not only hers. For both Parker and Phoenix, the film is a sort of repository of haunting, reassuring River images. Recalling that both River and costar Keanu Reeves (who plays the privileged Scott Favor, given to Shakespearean rhapsodies) were more experienced than most everyone else on the set, Parker smiles, sadly, “They were so graceful, both of them… If there was ever fear or anxiety, which there wasn’t very much, but if there was, they were both kind of like, ‘Oh, don’t worry.'”
By contrast, the characters they played worry perpetually: street hustler Mike frets that he loses time, and any stable sense of identity or location, by dint of his narcoleptic lapses. Structured according to Mike’s fragmented sense of self and time, the movie transitions by blackouts and prostitution episodes — time unresolved and time for sale. “I always know where I am by the way the road looks,” says Mike in his first appearance on screen, gazing out on a road that looks completely un-singular. Framed in handheld disjunction, set against a plaintive steel pedal guitar strain, Mike looks out onto endlessness. “Like I just know that I’ve been here before, I just know that I’ve been stuck here, like this one fucking time before, you know that”?
He’s talking to you, but also not. He’s living inside his dream and struggling with “street” realities (sex for money, poverty, alienation, fear). He’s simultaneously the film’s center (as he seeks the comfort represented by his nostalgically remembered mother) and its most elusive figure. “There’s not another road anywhere that looks exactly like this road,” he says, “It’s one kind of place, one of a kind. Like someone’s face, like a fucked-up face.” The absence of a linear narrative makes Idaho feel delicate and intricate, but also ballsy. The film was surprising, even given Van Sant’s previous thematic and visual experiments, in Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy.
Partly this surprise was a function of the fractured narrative and ambiguous protagonist, but the effect also emerged out of the film’s focus on “sexual identity” (in this case gayness) as a means to challenge movie conventions. “Since sex was their trade,” says Van Sant in a conversation with the understandably adoring Todd (“The beginning is so resonant and powerful, and just so gorgeous because it’s so cinematic”) Haynes, “They didn’t have much of a sexual identity, it was subverted, because sex was something they did for business.” And so he made Mike gay, with Scott the object of his unrequited love, in order to bring to the forefront questions of sexual desire, identity, and community, as these shape one another. “Straight time is for straight people,” asserts Van Sant. Amen.
The Criterion package takes up the film’s themes of rupture, contiguity, and desire in its smart arrangement of extras, one being a 64-page booklet with photos, art, essays by Amy Taubin (“Private Places”), JT LeRoy (“Boise on the Side”), and Lance Loud (“Shakespeare in Black Leather,” originally published in American Film), as well as interviews with Van Sant, Reeves, and Phoenix from Interview magazine. The other extras appear on a second disc, and include the conversations between Van Sant and Haynes (a long one, divided into 33 sections); Rain Phoenix and Parker; and JT LeRoy and Jonathan Caouette, both profoundly affected by seeing the film in their political and artistic “formative” years, as it was for so many others. On seeing this film for the first time, you developed an instant crush on Phoenix, were struck by the film’s adventurous pairing of Reeves and Shakespeare, gasped at incisive intelligence of the movie blue mag covers, and understood — deeply and vaguely — the significance of Idaho‘s deconstructive beauty.
The set also includes “The Making of My Own Private Idaho,” a documentary made for Criterion in 2004, with recollections by editor Curtiss Clayton, cinematographers John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, and production design David Brisbin (“The script was defiantly off the charts”); and the 44-minute “Kings of the Road,” which features “film scholar Paul Arthur,” who discusses the film’s interventions into genre (road movies, which come with built in structures, allowing the insertion of any identity or politics, Westerns, “male identity,” and the father-son intrigues of the Henry plays), as well as its “personal” aspect (illustrated by a clip: “This is my road,” says Mike) and “unusually subjective” techniques. On the other hand, Arthur notes, the film “generates an extremely dense web of cultural references and allusions that conducts a dialogue not only with a bunch of other movies, but also with traditions of American culture and American painting that involve the image of the outcast and the landscape.” At which point he quotes Van Sant, by way of substantiating his own claims.
This strategy raises a key question as to how to read Idaho. While DVD commentary tracks — this one’s included — do tend to privilege the author’s voice (you want to know what Van Sant thinks he was doing at the time or now, looking back), but if Idaho does nothing else, it breaks down the sense of direct link between intention and effect. As the film cuts between times and places, following Mike’s disjointedness (typically marked by his different, kinkily inclined tricks), his flashbacks to childhood memories, and abrupt-but-also supple cutaways to poetic close-ups and motifs (Mike’s hand jittering, smoke, time-lapsed clouds), it offers his experience as emblematic of a lingering cultural moment.
The film imagines fears and conflicts, as well as hopes, as essential means to self-discovery, as well as -defeat. Scott rejects his wealthy father and takes up with his Falstaff, Bob Pigeon (William Reichert), and as Mike tries to keep up. Scott rides his motorcycle, his hair in the wind, his black leather jacket so cool next to Mike’s endearingly rumpled and filthy orange canvas coat. “What I’m getting at Mike,” Scott murmurs as they observe they’ve been friends for four years(a lifetime in street kids’ time), “Is that we’re still alive.” And that in itself is a surprise. They survive in private and public spaces, in spite of themselves, and certainly without help from any adults, who consistently exploit, want, and cheat them. As they persist in your memories and their own, Mike and Scott live a strangely lyrical credence. Simultaneously inviting and resisting interpretation, they move on.