Thursday, 19 April 2012

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

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Films You Must See Before you Die No. 835 - My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho is a rather Shakespearian take on life on the streets. It follows Mike (River Phoenix), a narcoleptic hustler who is traumatised from being abandoned by his mother. He suffers a narcoleptic fit at times of stress or when he is reminded of his mother and childhood. His sympathetic friend, Scott (Keanu Reeves), is the son of a mayor and a thinly veiled Prince Hal from Shakespeare's Henry IV. He is is disgusted by his father and chooses to be a street hustler and a disappointment until he turns 21 and receives his inheritance, at which point he vows he will change his ways. The Falstaff figure, Bob (William Richert), is a drug addicted vagrant and a nucleus around which a group of hustlers and misfits in Portland revolve . He and Scott share a peculiar relationship in which Scott loves him like a father, while Bob is in love with him. He is banking on Scott helping him and the rest of the group when he inherits his money.

Mike and Scott attempt to find Mike's mother and travel to Idaho to meet with Mike's brother. On the way, Mike tells Scott that he loves him. When the trail for Mike's mother leads to Italy, Scott falls in love with a girl called Carmella and they return to Portland, leaving Mike alone in Italy to continue his search. Mike continues to prostitute himself to fund his drug habit although he eventually makes his way back to Portland, having failed to find his mother. Back with his friends on the streets, they spot Scott and Carmella entering a restaurant. Bob rightly assumes that Scott has inherited his money, and approches him. Scott distances himself from him, declaring that he has changed and wants nothing to do with Bob, despite loving him like a father. Later, Bob dies and his noisy pauper's funeral is held in the cemetery a few feet away from where the funeral of Scott's father is also taking place. The film ends with Mike back on "his road" in Idaho. He suffers another narcoleptic fit, during which he is robbed by two people before being picked up by an unknown passing driver.


River Phoenix was a hugely talented actor who seemed incapable of putting in anything other than a brilliant performance. Apart from Stand By MeMy Own Private Idaho is possibly his best film. It's yet another reminder of what a great actor we lost when he died at the age of 23.

A lot of people deride Keanu Reeves, and he does have an awkwardness about him that could be and is interpreted as wooden. Personally, I'm fond of him. I like his film choices (on the whole) and he seems like a nice bloke and he's actually one of the few contemporary film stars who doesn't annoy the  bejesus out of me. He also hasn't aged in well over 20 years which is quite a feat. Congratulations on your great genes, Keanu. His reputation as a bad actor is quite unfair, although sometimes I admit that he's been miscast. He stands up well alongside River Phoenix in this film, probably helped by their obvious camaraderie.

This is a brave and a classic cult film. The stand-out moment for me is the campfire scene. It must be one of the most heart wrenching and vulnerable declarations of love, particularly because in the film none of the other hustlers admit that they're gay. According to Gus Van Sant, River Phoenix expanded the scene with his own dialogue.

The direction is unusual. The camera angles used are interesting and sometimes the film is documentary style as some of the cast members (who were actually real-life hustlers) recall stories. Sex scenes are depicted via freeze-frames of the actors holding funny poses. During Mike's narcoleptic episodes, time-lapse landscape and nature shots are used, as well as remembrances of his childhood depicted through old home movie footage. Shakespearian language is scattered throughout the film, as are some peculiar characters such as a client of Mike's who makes Mike clean his house while dressed up as a "little Dutch boy"from a cleaning product. Oh, and Udo Kier as Hans. I love him so much.

Not much more to say except that I think this was a film ahead of its time in a way - not just story-wise, but in terms of film making. It perfectly captures a drifting, passive longing.

Screencaptures and quotes under the cut.






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"There's not another road anywhere that looks like this road. I mean, exactly like this road. It's one kind of place. One of a kind. Like someone's face. Like a fucked-up face."

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Hans: "You want to be my friend?"
Mike: "No."
Hans: "My name is Hans. I'm from Germany. Now I live in America selling pieces for cars."
Mike: "Mm-hmm."
Hans: "Say, why don't you get in?"
Mike: "No."
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 " I'm trying to make a living. I like to have a professional attitude."
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"There's no reason to know the time. We are timeless."
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"When I turn 21, I don't want any more of this life. My mother and father will be surprised at the incredible change. It will impress them more when such a fuckup like me turns good, than if I had been a good son all along. All my bad behaviour I will throw away to pay a debt. I will change when everybody expects it the least."
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Scott: "When I left home, the maid asked me where I was off to. I said, 'Wherever, whatever. Have a nice day.'" 
Mike: You had a maid? If I had a normal family and a good upbringing then I would have been a well-adjusted person. (...) I'd like to talk with you. I mean, I'd like to really talk with you. We're talking right now, but, you know, I don't know. I don't feel like I can be... I don't feel like I can be close to you. I mean, we're close. Right now we're close, but, I mean, y'know. 
Scott: Uh, how close? I mean -
             Mike: "I don't know. Whatever.

             Scott: "What?"

             Mike: "What do I mean to you?"
Scott: "What do you mean to me? Mike, you're my best friend." 
Mike: "I know, man. And I - I know - I know I'm your friend. We're good friends. And it's good to be, you know, good friends. That's a good thing. So, I just - That's okay. We can be friends.
Scott:  "I only have sex with a guy for money." 
Mike: "Yeah, I know."
Scott: "And two guys can't love each other."
Mike: "Yeah. Well, I don't know. I mean, I mean for me, I could love someone even if I, y'know, wasn't paid for it. I love you and you don't pay me."
Scott: "Mike."
Mike: "I really want to kiss you, man. Goodnight, man. I love you though. You know that. I do love you."
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"'Rooms, phones, color TV. Wall-to-wall carpeting and efficiently controlled electric heat combination tub and showers. Game table and two reading chairs with some connecting rooms.' It sounds so nice. I wouldn't mind living here." 
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Hans: "Mike?"
Mike: "What?"
Hans: "I'm extremely excited."
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Cop: "You like your bike?" 
Hans: "Mm-hmm."
Cop: "Well, I'm still gonna give you a ticket."
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Bob: "It's true, we're drawing attention to ourselves, but Scotty will witness that I'm dying to see him and it won't matter how we're dressed. God save you! God save you, my sweet boy. Scotty, my own true friend! I mean you, Scotty. It's me, Bob!"  
Scott: "I don't know you, old man. Please leave me alone. When I was young and you were my street tutor - an instigator for my bad behaviour - I was planning a change. There was a time when I had the need to learn from you, my former and psychedelic teacher. And although I love you more dearly than my dead father, I have to turn away. Now that I have, and until I change back, don't come near me.
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