By Nick Alderink

The late River Phoenix opens Gus Van Sant’s 1991 surrealist drama My Own Private Idaho on an open road in the middle of a stunningly vacant Idaho landscape. He is completely alone yet sets the stage by breaking out into soliloquy, as an actor would at the beginning of a stage play. It’s a stylization choice from Van Sant and a reoccurring theme in the film that explores the lives of street hustlers in the Pacific Northwest, projected through a Shakespearean lens.

Today, the movie may not be the most popular in the filmography of Van Sant, more known for Good Will Hunting or Milk, but it is critically important in regard to the movement coined by writer B. Ruby Rich as ‘New Queer Cinema’, which almost exclusively existed in the Art House Cinema community before My Own Private Idaho was released to the mainstream and featured openly gay characters played by massively popular actors River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. Rich coined the phrase in a 1992 Sight and Sound article commenting on the new wave of independent films being made by filmmakers who were self-identified members of the LGBTQ community and characterized their work with honest, objective, and assertive depictions of gay and lesbian characters. Characters that also conciously contradicted modern conventions and cast themselves away from society .

My Own Private Idaho finds a home in Cinema Revolution as one of the first major titles from Fine Line Features, a production/distribution company that was founded in 1990 as the Art House division of New Line Cinema and run by Cinema Revolution curator Ira Deutchman from 1990-1995.

A Bit You Should Know

Aside from the dialogue, the film draws it’s Shakespearean ties loosely from Henry IV, Part I and Part II. The shared storyline between the two develops in the arc of Keanu Reeves’ character Scott Favor who, like Prince Hal in the Bard’s story, is destined to inherit a fortune (or throne) yet opts to spend his youthful life on the street. Most of the allusions end there, however, and the plot draws the rest of its structure from various uncompleted screenplays from Van Sant that he combined to form a cohesive story.

From the archaic dialogue, though, Van Sant evokes a sense of surrealism that is juxtaposed and heightened with the weight of cutting realism. The narcoleptic fits of Phoenix’s Mike Waters provoke time-lapsed images of the Pacific Northwest landscape that adds an ethereal spirit to the film but Van Sant also casted real Portland street hustlers as extras and interactive characters to ground the story in reality. While Waters and Favor meet in the café to hang out with their friends, the film cuts to documentary-like interviews with these boys and lets the story take a break without actually informing the audience what is being done.

For his role, Phoenix methodically prepared himself by interviewing and living with these hustlers as well, including the real Michael Waters that Van Sant had met in Portland and based the character off of. In the process, Phoenix brought himself into their world on the street and although it has never been clear how extensively he took the process, it has been the subject of much speculation especially considering the role drugs had in his untimely death.

What To Look Out For

  • As Scott favor is meant to represent Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays, Sir John Falstaff is represented by William Richert’s Bob Pigeon, the street hustler who Scott declares he loves more than his father. As a nod to this allusion, Keanu and other hustlers can be seen drinking Falstaff Beer
  • The ‘Campfire Scene’, one of the most memorable scenes in the film, was written by River Phoenix and the last to be shot in production. It was added with the intention of creating an extra layer to Waters’ character, and succeeds in every element although Van Sant knew very little of its contents when shooting the rest of the film.

My Own Private Idaho will play in the Annex Cinema tonight at 7 PM, the penultimate addition to Cinema Revolution. Next week, we will conclude with Robert Altman’s 1992 black comedy, The Player. Next, be on the lookout for the release of our annual Summer Classics Film Series coming next month. See you at the Michigan!

Sources and Other Interesting Reads

  • Chin, Daryl. “New Queer Cinema”. glbtqarchive.com. http://www.glbtqarchive.com/arts/new_queer_cinema_A.pdf.
  • [VIDEO] “River Phoenix researching for “My Own Private Idaho” Part 1 of 9″. YouTube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzdC_z6D37s