My Own Private Idaho

USA 1991, 104 mins
Director: Gus Van Sant

At the opening of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, we look down a very long stretch of two-lane highway, bisecting the desert scrubland, curving upwards as it disappears into the distant mountain haze. Like a shot, River Phoenix skids into view. His cheek, with its ragged blonde sideburns and faint tracing of acne, is disorientingly close. It’s like waking up with a stranger’s head shoved against your own. Phoenix coughs; you can feel his breath in your ear. Phoenix plays Mike, a narcoleptic gay hustler whose parentage is as incestuous as that of Faye Dunaway’s sister/daughter’s in Chinatown (1974). But since Mike’s origins are below the poverty line, this is no Greek tragedy, just an extra Oedipal wrinkle in an already disenfranchised existence.

My Own Private Idaho shifts fluidly between close-up and panorama, intimacy and distance, symbiosis and alienation. While there is something of Godard in Van Sant’s depiction of sex as labour and/or theatrics, his films are associative rather than didactic, closer to Pasolini’s in their blend of neo-realism and poetic lyricism. The influence of the European art cinema notwithstanding, Van Sant is a distinctly American filmmaker with an extraordinary sense of place. Like the David Lynch of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, Van Sant uses elements of Hollywood psychodrama and American avant-garde trance film to explore the subjectivity of young men coming of age.

Mike and Scott (Keanu Reeves) are part of a gang of street prostitutes who hang out in a derelict hotel. Their leader is Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a fat, beer-guzzling chicken hawk who’s got a thing for the narcissistic Scott. Bob and Scott act out their relationship as Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Prince Hal, challenging each other to ever greater heights of bowlderised verse. Scott has also fallen into the habit of taking care of vulnerable Mike, whose narcolepsy endangers not only his income, but his life.

Threaded with home movie images (no filmmaker has ever been better than Van Sant at forging and integrating these), My Own Private Idaho is a crazy quilt of family romances. Everybody is either looking for or escaping from their families, organising new families, or pouring over photographs of other people’s families. Mike’s sadistic brother/father has a mail-order portrait business in which people send him their family snapshots to be copied. ‘I like to have them around. They keep me company’, he laughs, waving his bottle at the grotesque array. And in the campfire scene, Mike prefaces his lovelorn confession with the agonised question: ‘Do you think I’d be different if I’d had a normal Dad?’ ‘What’s a normal Dad?,’ shrugs Scott, the sophisticate.

Deeply regressive, Mike’s desire for family is for the safety of the mother’s body; his narcolepsy is his defence against the agony of his childhood abandonment. Anything that reminds him of his lost mother triggers a violent psychosomatic reaction. He shakes so much he looks as though he might explode, and then keels over in a stupor. Because he short-circuits before he can connect past and present, he remains as asocial as an infant, and in that sense, innocent. Idaho’s fragmented editing style – its heterogeneous visual associations and dense layering of spoken word, concrete sound and music – evokes Mike’s confusion of inside and outside, past and present.

Gus Van Sant on ‘My Own Private Idaho’

Do you like My Own Private Idaho ? Do you go back to see your movies?

I love this movie, It’s my favourite. 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 it intellectually, or at least, I’m not.

The other day I got a fax from Simon Turner, who does Derek Jarman’s soundtracks. It was in a kind of child’s handwriting – I guess that’s how he writes. He had written ‘My’ and then ‘OPI’ and then the next sentence started with a ‘C’, which is like ‘myopic’: That’s exactly how the character of Mike is seeing things – myopically, and I had never noticed. I had some rub-on letters from when I was a kid and I had made a cover for the script with different-sized letters. It came out My Own Private Idaho: and I started thinking that the character’s id was part of his insatiable need to be loved, the beast within him that he doesn’t really know about, but that drives him.

A certain contingent of street hustlers I met, boys of his age, were looking for guidance and attention from men. Sex was something they did, but it was unimportant. What was really important was sometimes control and sometimes attention and focus from somebody who could be like their dad. That sort of thing, I guess, would come from the id.

I read in an interview with you that the campfire scene was rewritten by the actor, River Phoenix.

The character wasn’t originally like that: originally, he was more asexual. I mean, sex was something he traded in, so he had no real sexual identity. But because he’s bored and they’re in the desert, he makes a pass at his friend. And it just sort of goes by, but his friend also notices that he needs something, so he says we can be friends and he hugs him. But River makes it more like he’s attracted to his friend, he’s in love with him. He made the whole character that way, whereas I wrote the character as more out of it, more myopic.

Now, it’s all about unrequited love.

It’s about abandonment, yes.

What about the Shakespeare? What do you think it does to the film?

I had three different screenplays and segments of each were mixed and cut together. There was one whole screenplay that was just a modernised version of Henry IV. I thought it was interesting that Shakespeare was writing about similar characters to the ones I was writing about – I realised that while I was watching Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. Then I also had a short story I had written about Ray and his cousin Little George. Ray was a hustler but Little George was just on the street. The story was told through Little George’s eyes; he had narcolepsy. They went to Mexico and Ray fell in love with a girl and had to ditch Little George. And then there was a third script about Mike and Scott, but with less of Scott – he was Mike’s friend but he wasn’t a rich kid and I don’t think they went on a trip and there wasn’t any Shakespeare. So the three scripts were put together and I thought we’d cast street kids and see if they could connect with the Shakespearean words and make any sense of them. So the final version still had one foot in Shakespeare, but now I’m casting Keanu Reeves. So I thought of it as characters who are speaking in their own secret language when they’re together – it’s their way of having fun.
Article and interview by Amy Taubin, Sight and Sound, January 1992

Director: Gus Van Sant
Production Company: New Line Cinema
Executive Producer: Gus Van Sant
Co-executive Producer: Allan Mindel
Producer: Laurie Parker
Line Producer: Tony Brand
Unit Production Manager: Paul Hellerman
Production Co-ordinators: Amanda Brand, Mary Ann Marino
Location Manager: Sara Burton
Production Assistants: John Brown, Matt Ebert, Chris Lowenstein
Post-production Assistant: Teresa Tamiyasu
Research Consultant: Jake Culver
Assistant Directors: Kris Krengel, David Minkowski
Casting: Sandy Collister
Screenplay: Gus Van Sant
Additional Dialogue: William Shakespeare
Directors of Photography: Eric Alan Edwards, John Campbell
Special Photography: Bruce Weber
Visual Effects Co-ordinator: Thomas Arndt
Visual Effects Crew: Chel White, Steve Warner, Janet Karecki, Kathleen Nichols, Laura Di Trapani, Karen E. Hout
Mechanical Effects: Illusion Works, Joe Henry Schmeer, Venora Debrowolski
Editor: Curtiss Clayton
Production Designer: David Brisbin
Art Director: Ken Hardy
Set Decorator: Melissa Stewart
Set Dresser: Daniel Self
Richard Waters’ Paintings: Anton Kimball
Lead Scenic Artist: Anne Hyvarinen
Storyboard Artist: Arnold Pander
Costume Designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
Key Make-up: Gina Monaci
Titles: Chas Bruce
Music: Bill Stafford
Yodeler/Accordion: Sandy Gernhart
Vibraphone: Richard McNutt
French Horn: Dorothy Rust
Whistler: Donald Granger
Saw: Richard Meyers
Violin: Hollis Taylor
Viola: Kim Burton
Cello: Lori Presthus
Dulcimer/Synthesizer: Jamie Haggerty
Hurdy Gurdy/Tar: Jean Poulot
Banjo: Elliot Sweetland, Elliot Letcher, Vernon Dunn
Recorders: Bruce Van Buskirk
Pedal Steel Guitar: Bill Stafford
Music Arranger: Bill Stafford
Additional Music Arranger: Jean Poulot
Music Recording: Scott Hybl, Rob Farley
Sound Recording: Reinhard Stergar
Music Re-recordists: Paul Sharpe, Bill Sheppard
Supervising Sound Editor: Kelley Baker
Sound Editors: Peter Appleton, Patrick Winters, Michael F. Newman
Walla Group: Scott Patrick Green, Jessie Thomas, Mike Parker, Shaun Jordan, Bryan Wilson, Kelly Brooks, Wade Evans, Vana O’Brien, Eric Hull
ADR Recordists: Forrest Brakeman, W. Wayne Woods
Foley Recordist: W. Wayne Woods
Foleys: Karen Karbo, Steve Miller
Ultra Stereo Consultant: Bruce Murphy
Animal Handler: Anne Gordon

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)
Sally Curtice (Jane Lightwork)
Robert Lee Pitchlynn (Walt)
Mickey Cottrell (Daddy Carroll)
Wade Evans (Wade)
Matt Ebert, Scott Patrick Green, Tom Cramer (coverboys)
Vana O’Brien (Sharon Waters)
Scott Patrick Green, Shaun Jordan, Shawn Jones (café kids)
George Conner (Bad George)
Oliver Kirk (Indian cop)
Stanley Hainesworth (dirtman)
Joshua Halladay (baby Mike)
Douglas Tollenen (little Richard)
Steven Clark Pachosa (hotel manager)
Lannie Swerdlow (disco manager)
Wally Gaarsland, Bryan Wilson, Mark Weaver, Conrad ‘Bud’ Montgomery (rock promoters)
Pat Patterson, Steve Vernelson, Mike Cascadden (cops)
Eric Hull (mayor’s aide)
James A. Arling (minister)
James Caviezel (airline clerk)
Ana Cavinato (stewardess)
Melanie Mosely (lounge hostess)
Greg Murphy (Carl)
David Reppinhagen (yuppie at Jake’s)
Tiger Warren (himself)
Massimo De Cataldo, Paolo Pei Andreoli, Robert Egon, Paolo Baiocco (Italian street boys)
Mario Stracciarolo (Mike’s Italian client)

USA 1991
104 mins

The screening on Wed 23 Feb will be introduced by BFI Race Equality Lead Rico Johnson-Sinclair

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar
Tue 1 Feb 18:20; Fri 25 Feb 20:45
Young Soul Rebels
Wed 2 Feb 18:20 (+ intro by BFI Race Equality Lead Rico Johnson-Sinclair); Thu 17 Feb 20:45
All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre)
Wed 2 Feb 20:45; Wed 16 Feb 21:00
Beautiful Thing
Thu 3 Feb 20:45; Mon 14 Feb 20:30
The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)
Fri 4 Feb 17:50; Sat 12 Feb 20:10; Sun 27 Feb 17:50
Sat 5 Feb 12:30; Sun 20 Feb 18:10
Sun 6 Feb 15:20; Mon 14 Feb 18:00
The Watermelon Woman
Mon 7 Feb 20:45; Sat 26 Feb 20:30
Happy Together (Chun gwong cha sit)
Tue 8 Feb 18:15 (+ intro by Yi Wang, Queer East); Sun 13 Feb 15:20
My Own Private Idaho
Tue 8 Feb 20:45; Wed 23 Feb 18:00 (+ intro by BFI Race Equality Lead Rico Johnson-Sinclair)
Brokeback Mountain
Wed 9 Feb 17:45 (+ intro by BFI Race Equality Lead Rico Johnson-Sinclair); Mon 21 Feb 20:25
Go Fish
Wed 9 Feb 20:40; Sat 26 Feb 18:20
Thu 10 Feb 18:30; Tue 22 Feb 14:30
Thu 10 Feb 20:40; Sun 13 Feb 13:00; Mon 21 Feb 18:00
Desert Hearts
Fri 11 Feb 20:40; Wed 16 Feb 18:20 (+ intro by BFI Head Librarian Emma Smart)
My Beautiful Laundrette
Sat 12 Feb 18:20; Tue 15 Feb 20:45; Sat 19 Feb 20:45
A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)
Sun 13 Feb 18:40; Tue 22 Feb 20:50
Mädchen in Uniform
Fri 18 Feb 20:30; Sat 26 Feb 16:00
Thu 24 Feb 14:30; Mon 28 Feb 20:45

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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