Alex Sitaras: In this issue of our Living Room Chats, we’re taking on the Gus Van Sant drama My Own Private Idaho. The film follows two drifters, Mike (River Phoenix) and Scott (Keanu Reeves), who travel from Portland to Idaho to Italy in search of Mike’s mother. The two are street hustlers who sell their bodies to a variety of clients, a number of which have eccentric scenes in the film. Ultimately, My Own Private Idaho is Mike’s journey in search of belongingness, his most pure human connection being with Scott. Mike experiences narcolepsy, adding to the concept that he is just only barely present in his own life. The film has a rather detached tone to it and evokes Americana and David Lynch in equal measure, at least to me. What do you make of the film Ben?
Ben McDonald: When I first watched it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. One thing to note about this film especially is that it is loosely based on Shakespeare (specifically his plays ‘Henry IV, Part 1’, ‘Henry IV, Part 2’, and ‘Henry V’). I was not aware of this fact until about 30ish minutes into the film. The film isn’t as faithful to its source material’s dialogue as something like Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet (another Shakespeare adaptation that embraces the anachronism between its old English dialogue and its modern setting), but there is that kind of stiff playfulness that comes with Shakespeare’s work that’s present. I think that was really the main thing that threw me off when I watched it. Outside of that, I adored the performances by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. This is very much an actor’s movie, but not exactly in a kind of overt, Oscar-baity way. I was especially taken aback by River Phoenix’s sheer vulnerability in each and every scene. He seems so lost and uncertain all the time, and the quiet way he expresses his character’s heartbreak over his feelings towards Scott being unreciprocated is really something I’ve never seen in a film before.
Alex: There’s a lot of things going on in My Own Private Idaho, and Van Sant manages to pack his film dense with symbolism and character study. Apart from the relationship between Mike and Scott as well as Mike’s struggle to be anything other than listless, there’s the dialogue, as you mentioned, outdoor shots in the desert, surreal sequences, and recurring imagery. There’s the campfire scene, the idea of which came from River Phoenix, and the magazine scene, miraculously shot without the use of CGI. Are there any particular scenes or moments in the film that stood out to you in seeing the film?
Ben: I’m glad you mentioned the campfire scene, because that’s the specific moment I was thinking of when talking before about River Phoenix’s vulnerable performance. That scene is just spectacular from start to finish, and to me feels like the climax of the film in that that is the moment where Mike realizes that Scott will never feel the same love that he feels for him. I’ve seen all kinds of performances that could be described as “heartfelt” or “tender” or “vulnerable”, but nothing comes close to the way Phoenix almost barely whispers his lines to Reeves in that scene. The line “What do I mean to you?” has absolutely been imprinted on my brain ever since I watched it, and it’s actually the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the film. There’s much to be said about Phoenix’s body language in that scene too – he starts off kind of leaning in towards the campfire, relaxed but slightly nervous because of what he’s about to say. As he realizes that Scott doesn’t love him back, his body starts to close in on itself, as if he’s hugging himself or trying to close off emotionally. It’s really just devastating stuff, but not overplayed or predictable at all.
Alex: Agreed. The words “what do I mean to you?” have yet to be trivialized or made into a cliche in films involving a romance between its’ central characters. The question isn’t a proposition to ‘go public’ and begin dating or to ‘put a label’ on two people. It’s a more personal question- what space in Scott’s heart does Mike occupy? And tragically, it isn’t the same space that Scott occupies in Mike’s heart. Scott remarks that he only has sex with men for money and that “two guys can’t love each other”. Perhaps an observation of the era’s lack of acceptance towards homosexuality, perhaps Scott is purely disinterested. The two aren’t on the same page and Mike’s recognition of this isn’t supplemented by anger or frustration. Rather, by sadness and a visible withdraw into his thoughts. Earlier in the scene, we also hear about the difference in upbringing between these two characters. Scott is very privileged – his father is the mayor of Portland. At one point, Scott tells Bob, a mentor to the hustlers, that he will retire from hustling when he turns 21 and inherit his father’s wealth. Despite the fact that he does not need to sell his body, he does so. Mike, on the other hand, needs to to make a living. When Scott mentions his childhood maid, Mike picks up on Scott’s wealth and laments the fact that he did not have a “normal family and a good upbringing”. He claims that if he had this, then he would’ve been well-adjusted like Scott. It’s this scene where we really get to know Mike and Scott, and recognize that their circumstances couldn’t be any more different despite sharing the same profession.
Ben: And that scene is especially tragic because it’s only about halfway through the film if I recall. Mike has heard Scott explicitly tell him he doesn’t love him, but continues to travel with him nevertheless.
One thing I really love about this film is its fantastic location work. We begin the film in Idaho (although these scenes were actually shot in Oregon) before flashing back to travel around Seattle and Portland. Later in the film, Mike and Scott set off to find the former’s mother in Italy, before promptly returning to Portland. I probably don’t pay attention to the production design and location work nearly enough when watching movies, but there’s something very lived-in, dirty, and almost magical about the locales in this film that I still find myself recalling their individual textures nearly two months after watching the film. The fact that Mike is narcoleptic also lends a certain dreaminess to the various locations in the film. Since he can suddenly fall asleep at any time without warning, there’s a peculiar sense of distance between him and the places in which he travels, almost as if he’s floating through the slides on one of those old photograph wheels. Did you also find yourself appreciating the location work too, Alex, or is it just me?
Alex: I did as well. In particular, the outdoor scenes in the film reminded me of watching Paris, Texas. There’s a quiet vastness depicting seemingly endless empty space, and scenes with Mike outdoors also make him feel ‘small’ in context of the world around him. The film even begins with such a scene. Coming and going from all these locations adds to a feeling of déjà vu. There are scenes in the film that reinforce the idea that we’ve been there before and that Mike remains lost, unable to truly break free from his surroundings (i.e. the circumstances of his life).
Ben: I wasn’t consciously reminded of Paris, Texas while watching but that’s a great connection. Both films have a similar visual aesthetic at times, using (like you said) the vastness of the rural American landscape to make their main characters look small and insignificant. I think that readily apparent contrast also highlights the intimate quality of both films, in that each are more or less about a single character on a significant personal journey – in the case of Paris, Texas, to right old familial wrongs, in the case of this film, for Mike to discover more about himself and his family.
Alex: Less is definitely more in My Own Private Idaho. I enjoyed this character study of a film and it’s the first River Phoenix film I’ve seen. I can see why he was so revered as an actor. His performance as Mike is a very nuanced performance for such a young actor.
Ben: Agreed, and this was the first film of Phoenix I’ve seen as well. It’s immensely tragic he left us so young, because in just this film alone he delivers one of the most vulnerable and ultimately human performances I’ve ever seen.