#868 My Own Private Idaho (1991)

In My Own Private Idaho, a young Gus Van Sant explores existence and geographic identity through the lens of a beautifully reinterpreted Henry cycle. Following the intrepid voyage of Reeves and Phoenix as they search for meaning and identity around the globe while questioning their relationships, sexuality, profession, childhood, and examining where parental figures play into these questions. In this piece, Van Sant takes Shakespeare’s piece and unapologetically turns it into a strange, somewhat elusive and pointless search for “a myth of maternal love that the audience sees as the scratchy home-video footage of Mike’s mind… and (he) succeeds in…conveying the subjective experience of troubled, disaffected youth” (Shneider). A film I truly enjoyed from beginning to end.

I am an absolute junkie for Shakespeare, and about a quarter of the way through this film it became clear that there were too many references to ignore (and every time I saw one, I would shout it out – ‘Falstaff Beer!’ being the first). After a quick Google, it was clear (and obvious by the time the banter shifted to high iambic pentameter in the abandoned hotel) that I was in Henry IV, and I immediately fell in love with what Van Sant was doing. I was impressed by what he was doing in the film, and I found it difficult to reconcile this with the work he did with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. My Own Private Idaho is an edgy film that is clearly way before its time. Even if it were to come out today, I think the reception would be somewhat lackluster.

I was perhaps most impressed with three major things in the film. One was the camera and editing work. His decisions to bounce between these really intimate oral history scenes, sprawling and perfectly-framed beautiful landscapes, and then strange dreamlike slow-motion nature imagery and hard home-videos… It seems ridiculous but it worked so well. This is one thing that I remember being a major part of his work in later pictures – the most notable was the fourth-wall breaks in Finding Forrester. Second, I was impressed at the writing. There were some scenes that really jumped out at me at their genuineness – namely the oral history of the hustling in the Chinese restaurant, the fire scene where Phoenix confesses his love for his best friend, the scene where Phoenix’s origins are being revealed in the trailer, and the scene in the hotel where Kier sings his weird German pop tape. In the trailer scene and campfire scene I literally gasped a “wow” at the end, and as a writer I think the most amazing thing between the writing and the performances is that on paper the dialogue would be garbage and make no sense… But these characters and performances create these truly beautiful moments that capture the human condition throughout the film, and I was in awe the entire time. Third, the performances. On paper, this piece is probably ridiculous – bouncing between the oral to the Shakespearean to the dreamlike atmospheres and mid-action sex scenes, but what is perhaps most impressive is how Reeves, Phoenix, Richert, and the rest of the ensemble manage to make this dreamworld concrete and believable while we journey on the road with them to exploring self-identity, love, and existence on the same roads they travel.

A truly beautiful, genius, and well-executed postmodern fantasy masterpiece that is incredibly real without pandering or begging to be taken seriously. It just is, and works incredibly well for what it is – impressive and awe-evoking.

I watched My Own Private Idaho on Criterion (#277), and was quite happy to learn that Criterion brought the film back after having been out of print for many years.


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