Monday, August 15, 2011

My Own Private Idaho (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)

Originally Written and Composed at on 1/28/05 w/ Additional Edits, New Content, & a New Conclusion.

After the success of his 1989 breakthrough film Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant was becoming one of most promising filmmakers in American Independent Cinema. The success of Drugstore Cowboy led to Van Sant to re-release his 1985 debut film Mala Noche as he was ready to work on his next project. With the emergence of New Queer Cinema that included such future indie film icons like Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes, Van Sant decided to put his hand into the scene with a story inspired by a song by the B-52s and some of the work of William Shakespeare's Henry IV for surreal, melancholic road film My Own Private Idaho.

Written and directed by Van Sant with some text inspired by Shakespeare's Henry IV, the film is about a rebellious heir who slums himself into the seedy gay hustling scene in Portland as he meets a moody, narcoleptic hustler who is trying to find love and the mother he hadn't seen for years. After hanging around with fellow hustlers and a homeless guru, the two young men wonder about their own homosexual feelings while going to Idaho and then to Italy to find one of the young men's mother only to find something else. Starring the late River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Udo Kier, Rodney Harvey, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Grace Zabriskie, and Chiara Caselli, My Own Private Idaho is a brilliant, heartbreaking film of alienation and youth.

For the young narcoleptic hustler Mike Waters (River Phoenix), hustling for money as a male, homosexual hooker hasn’t been easy, especially with the stress of his life leads him to fall into deep sleeps. One day in Seattle, he is approached by a rich woman named Alena (Grace Zabriskie) to come to her house for sexual matters with two other hustlers including Gary (Rodney Harvey) and Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves). After falling a sleep on the job, Scott takes Mike outside of the house where he will be waited the next morning by their German friend Hans (Udo Kier). Mike knows Scott since Scott is the mayor's son who is about to collect a large inheritance at the age of 21. Scott chooses to rebel against his upper-class upbringing to find more meaning in the life of gay-hustling.

After catching up with Mike in Portland, Scott and Gary wait for their friend and spiritual leader Bob (William Richert) who is accompanied by his hysterical sidekick Budd (Flea). Bob is hoping for Scott to get his inheritance to help them out of their homeless, dreary lifestyle as a whole gang of hustlers live in an abandoned hotel. After a bust on some men that was later pulled as a joke by Mike and Scott, the two stolen a motorcycle where Mike talks about the mother he hadn't seen in years. After meeting his father (Tom Troupe) on the discussion of his inheritance, Scott decides to kill time to help Mike find his mother. They go to Idaho where they meet Mike's older brother Richard (James Russo) who not only reveals a dark family secret but also the strange whereabouts of their mother. During their trip to see Richard, Mike falls for Scott but Scott isn't sure if men are supposed to be in love with each other

Mike and Scott drive to a hotel where Mike's mother last worked where the hotel manager tells them that she left for Italy as they bump into Hans. After a night that involved one of Hans' old records and sex, Scott sells the motorcycle to Hans as they use the money to go to Rome to find Mike's mother. Arriving at Rome where they go to the Italian countryside, Scott meets and falls for a young Italian woman named Carmella (Chiara Caselli) who reveals that Mike's mother had already left some time ago back to America. Heartbroken with not finding his mother and Scott's newfound love for Carmella, Mike leaves to Rome while Scott returns to America. After Mike returns to Portland, he learns of Scott's true intentions of the inheritance and his own livelihood in his disintegrating state through drug addiction.

While My Own Private Idaho was intended to be a film about homosexuality and its alienation, Van Sant found something that a straight audience even the disaffected youth of the early 90s can relate to. Using Shakespeare's Henry IV as a reference, some of the film's dialogue is very Shakespearean in its tone, notably the character of Bob as he talks with Scott about the inheritance. The film also has elements of a road film and a buddy comedy while it sexuality isn't really about gays in particular but also the view point of how a straight man would feel about homosexuality and its desire for love. Van Sant's screenplay is very potent and filled with some heartbreaking moments, notably the third act where we see the emotional disintegration of Mike. The directing style that Van Sant puts out is very diverse and there's definitely an element of Fellini in some of the dream sequences that Mike has as he sees a house falling down or him staring at the road. The ideas that Van Sant puts out are very surreal yet very powerful images.

Many of the film's dreamy images are done by the work of cinematographers John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards where both men give specific looks and images in many of the film's road scenes. The American sequences are spectacular in its dreamy scales while the sequences in Italy have a different tone and look where the movie is given a broad outlook. The production design of work of David Brisbin and Ken Hardy also shows contrast into Scott's social upbringing and the downtrodden look of Portland while having some weird colors and lighting in the hotel scene with Udo Kier along with the costumes of Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. The film is nicely-paced thanks Curtiss Clayton's editing that includes a few jump-cut sequences in some of the love scenes. The film's music includes a diverse style of cuts from pop songs like Madonna and Elton John to some Euro-pop cuts from Udo Kier, a track by the Pogues and River Phoenix's band Aleka's Attic, and some country stuff by Bruce K. Buskirk and "Cattle Call" by Eddy Arnold.

The film's wonderfully diverse cast is filled with some stand out performances like the late Rodney Harvey as one of Mike and Scott's hustling companions and Flea as Bob's hysterically funny sidekick. Grace Zabriskie also stands out in the film as the kinky, motherly client that pursues Mike while Udo Kier is the film's big standout with his European demeanor and performance art charm. Chiara Caselli is wonderful in the role of Scott's would-be lover Carmella with her underlying innocence and beauty. James Russo is excellent as Mike's older brother who tries to help Mike away from drugs and his own narcolepsy while William Richert brings a great supporting performance as the spiritual guru Bob with his Shakespearean dialogue and tone that gives the movie a sense of idiosyncrasy and originality.

While many have often criticized and made fun of Keanu Reeves as a wooden actor, Reeves actually gives his best performance as the role of Scott Favor. For those who remember Reeves in films like River's Edge and Permanent Record know that Reeves had the ability to be a wonderful dramatic actor and in My Own Private Idaho, he fulfills that easily. Reeves gives a sense of compassion and charm early in the film as he cares for River Phoenix in many scenes that are heartwarming with the two carrying on with great chemistry. Then as the film progresses and once we see his intentions, we see a restraint in him in the Shakespearean tone he talks in during his scenes with Richert which is why Kenneth Branagh wanted him for his 1993 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Though Reeves has become a very bland actor in recent years thanks to the widely overrated Matrix films, it's very easy to forget that he had the potential to be really good and My Own Private Idaho shows it.

The film's most soulful and probably now, the most saddest performance goes to River Phoenix as Mike Waters. Phoenix brings in a very complex and versatile performance that can almost be described as iconic yet very troubled. Phoenix delivers a vulnerability and compassion into a role that is almost heroic with his motivation to find love and a family but often succumbs to his own flaws and his desire for drugs that leads to the downfall of his character and only increasing his narcolepsy. There are moments now in that film that is more troubling, even as it progresses where we see early on, the innocent dreamer and by the end, he's not that anymore. It's Phoenix's best performance of his career as it was something the 1991 Venice Film Festival noticed when they gave him the Volpi Cup for Best Actor.

***Additional DVD Content Written from 8/6/11-8/14/11***

The 2005 2-disc Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection is a massive set that is approved by Gus Van Sant for the film. The film is presented in a 1:78:1 theatrical aspect ratio that is enhanced for 16x9 widescreen televisions plus Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo Surround sound. The first disc of the DVD is the film restored in a new high-definition presentation that includes English subtitles for the hearing impaired. The look of the film is truly mesmerizing as the look as Van Sant help maintains the rich tone of the film. The only special feature on the first disc is the film’s theatrical trailer.

The second disc of the DVD is filled with a large array of special features relating to the film. The first big special feature is an audio interview with Gus Van Sant by fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes. The audio interview that lasts for over two hours as Van Sant talking about the film with Haynes. The conversation has the two directors talk about the film where Van Sant talks largely about the production, the inspiration, and the performances of Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix. While there’s a lot of interesting conversations about the production, the fact it’s not a commentary track makes it a bit dull at times despite the content that both Van Sant and Haynes talk about including the fact that some of the dialogue in the famed campfire scene was written by River Phoenix. Still, it is a very good audio feature that hardcore fans will enjoy.

The 42-minute making-of documentary featuring interview with cinematographers Eric Alan Edwards and John Campbell, editor Curtiss Clayton, and production designer David Brisbin about the making of the film. The men talk about the production of the film and Van Sant’s approach as he wanted to shoot it entirely in Portland since he feels like it’s a city that could be its own character. Brisbin discusses Portland as a world that Van Sant wanted while Edwards and Campbell reveal the different shooting styles of the film where it’s a mixture of a loose hand-held style to more technical-driven stuff like cranes and dollies. Brisbin, Edwards, and Campbell also talk about River Phoenix’s contributions as he was instrumental in making sure he would help Van Sant with his vision. It’s an overall amazing documentary about the film’s production with some great insight into how Van Sant chooses to present his film.

The Kings of the Road featurette is a 44-minute interview with film scholar Paul Arthur about the film and the resources Van Sant used to make this film. Arthur believes that the film is part of a new wave of revisionist road movies of the early 1990s like David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Arthur also believes that Van Sant’s real true resource is Orson Welles’ 1965 film Chimes at Midnight about the famed Shakespeare character Sir John Falstaff of Henry IV in the form of Bob. Arthur reveals that there’s a lot of elements of Falstaff in the story in relation to Scott Favor’s own transformation and eventual acceptance into the role he was set to play. Arthur believes that some of the film was a shot-for-shot remake of Chimes at Midnight along with the idea that the film is about Van Sant’s own dueling ideologies of doing Hollywood films and experimental films as it’s a truly engaging featurette overall.

The 20-minute video conversation with producer Laurie Parker and Rain Phoenix, the younger sister of River who also starred in Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, discuss the film and River Phoenix’s performance. Parker and Phoenix talk about River’s process of trying to create a performance and be a collaborator to Van Sant. Phoenix talked about the fact that it was River who suggested her to be in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Parker recalls a lot of the things in production that were fun while the stuff in Italy was more intimate because the crew was smaller at the time. Rain and Parker both recall the casting of William Reichert as Bob largely because River suggested it proving how much of a collaborator he was to Van Sant as it’s a great conversation piece between the two women.

The 53-minute audio conversation between The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things novelist JT LeRoy and filmmaker Jonathan Caouette of the film Tarnation. The audio track is essentially LeRoy and Caouette talking about the film via phone conversation. A lot of it is quite humorous while they even get Gus Van Sant to pop in for a large portion of the conversation. Caouette discusses that the film came out at the right time in his life when he felt that there weren’t a lot of films about gays of his generation at the time that was very accessible. LeRoy talks to Caouette and Van Sant about the difference between Seattle and Portland as far as people are concerned that is very weird though intriguing. Overall, it’s a fun more engaging audio piece from two fans of the film.

The deleted scenes section includes twelve minutes of six deleted scenes that was cut from the film plus the original barn crash scene that included a scratch in the middle of the frame. The scenes are preceded with a note that the film features some missing sound and images that weren’t un-restored for the DVD. The first scene is a wonderful scene of Bob displaying an impromptu theatrical performance with Scott as an old lady and fellow friends watch while cops try to break in. The second scene is where Mike asks a couple of his friends including Gary for some food as they all work in food stands. The third scene is actually an alternate ending of who actually picks up Mike at the end of the film. The next scene involves Mike in the road waiting for a ride as he recalls old memories. The next has Mike at a hospital where he talks to a nurse while the last is Scott and Mike howling at the sky during a campfire.

The DVD set which includes a gorgeous yet lavish packaging also includes a 64-page booklet that features two essays, an article by Lance Loud, and two reprinted interviews with Gus Van Sant, River Phoenix, and Keanu Reeves. The first essay is from Amy Taubin entitled Private Places where Taubin talks about the film and how it daring it was at the time it came out in 1991. Taubin talks about the fragility of Mike and Scott’s own conflict into the two worlds he’s in as it’s a compelling essay from Taubin. The second essay called Boise on the Side by J.T. LeRoy where LeRoy writes about his love for My Own Private Idaho with its director Gus Van Sant. It’s a very witty discussion about the film where LeRoy picks out favorite scenes and dialogue to emphasize what he loves about the film. The third essay by Lance Loud called Shakespeare in Black Leather is an article about the film that was written for American Film magazine. The article has Loud go inside the production of the film as well as Van Sant’s career and his advice to steal from the classics when in need of an idea as the overall article is truly a superb read.

The next two articles are different interviews from Interview magazine. The first is an interview with Gus Van Sant conducted by River Phoenix entitled My Director and I for the March 1991 issue. Van Sant and Phoenix discuss the production as well as Van Sant’s methods into directing as well as Van Sant’s own background into his own life. It’s a wonderfully engaging interview as it both Van Sant and Phoenix seemed relaxed into the conversation they’re having. The second article from the November issue of Interview is an interview with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves by Gini Sikes and Paige Powell. The interview had Phoenix and Reeves discuss the film as well as their characters. Both reveal a lot about what goes on in production while providing some humorous anecdotes about what they do sometimes. They also talk about working with Van Sant and how much they enjoyed it as it’s a fun yet compelling interview.

The Criterion set for My Own Private Idaho is truly one of the company’s best in terms of packaging and presentation. It’s also a must-have for fans of the film as well as anyone that wants to know what great 1990s American cinema is.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

My Own Private Idaho is without a doubt Gus Van Sant’s best film in his truly revered film career. Featuring an iconic performance by River Phoenix as well as a brilliant performance from Keanu Reeves, it is truly one of the best films ever made for its blend of gay drama, Americana, and the road film. Anyone that wants to seek out the films of Gus Van Sant will see this as the perfect place to start of how daring and how accessible he can be. In the end, My Own Private Idaho is an outstanding film from Gus Van Sant.

(C) thevoid99 2011


blakecgriffin said...

This is my favorite of van Sant's films. There's a relaxed an authentic feel about it that lacks in his other films. And I say that as an active fan of his.

Maybe it's just because I grew up in Idaho, though. Who knows.

thevoid99 said...

It's also my favorite film of his as well. It's largely because it was one of the first films I saw as a teenager. I wasn't sure what I thought of it until years later as I just fell in love with. He just created something that is very original that no one will replicate.