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The Criterion Collection presents

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

"I always know where I am by the way the road looks. Like I just know I've been here before. I just know that I've been stuck here... There's not another road anywhere that looks like this road. It's one kind of place, one of a kind. Like someone's face. Like a f***ed-up face."- Mike Waters (River Phoenix)

Stars: Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix
Other Stars: James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Michael Parker, Flea, Chiara Caselli, Udo Kier
Director: Gus Van Sant

MPAA Rating: R for (language, drug use, nudity, strong sexual content)
Run Time: 01h:44m:20s
Release Date: 2005-03-01
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+AB+ A-


DVD Review

A strange hybrid of Shakespeare, road movie, and art film experiment, My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant's 1991 follow-up to the landmark indie Drugstore Cowboy is an ambitious, personal, sometimes maddening mess of a movie that, by all accounts, should be off-putting and unwatchable (the consensus take on his follow-up, the equally ambitious Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). But instead, it's mesmerizing, affecting, and genuinely emotional—a unique cinematic experience that has attracted something of a cult following.

The film emerged in the early 1990s, when independently produced films were just starting to emerge from the "arthouse ghetto" and be seen by a larger audience. Somehow, a story about two male street prostitutes in Portland, Oregon attracted Hollywood stars. The late River Phoenix plays the lonely, haunted Mike Waters, often stricken with uncontrollable narcoleptic fits, and Keanu Reeves, whom audiences were used to seeing as Bill (or is it Ted?), is Scott Favor. his closest friend, and, perhaps, object of desire. Both are searching for something—Mike wants freedom from his well-to-do father's expectations, and Mike simply wants to find the home he's not quite sure he even remembers. The two set off on a trip to find Mike's mother, and the trip takes them through the back alleys and bombed out hotels of the American underbelly, places most films would fear to tread.

Mike's narcolepsy is triggered during times of strong emotional distress, and Van Sant uses these moments to show off a bit, using strong colors and stark imagery to depict the character's emotional state—a barn falls from the sky to crash on the highway, memories of childhood are glimpsed and replayed, idealized. The artistry of Mike's narcoleptic fantasy sequences carries over to the rest of the film, which plays like a dream—the vivid colors and imagery of the subconscious state crossing over into exaggerated acting and some downright odd moments (as when a number of characters talk to each other from the covers of gay skin mags, or when a john, Udo Kier, reveals to Mike and Scott his musical past).

Van Sant is telling what is, at least in Hollywood terms, a very subversive story, and he isn't afraid to go all out—My Own Private Idaho is unapologetically artsy, with little to no regard for the audience, or, really, the film as a coherent whole. That's not necessarily a put-down, it's just simply the only way I can describe a movie that mixes multiple dream sequences, non-intuitive jump cutting, theatrical set designs and costumes, and dialogue that shifts from poetic to satirical to faux-Shakespearean. For the most part, it holds together, and has an emotional cohesiveness that transcends some of its more indulgent moments.

But then there's the 20-minute segment mid-picture focusing on the Falstaffian Bob Pigeon (director William Richert), a drug-addicted eccentric who fancies himself a father figure to a band of prostitutes (both male and female) in Portland. Bob looms large in a segment of the film taken directly from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I & II and Henry V, in which a man (here, Reeves' Scott) tries to avoid inheriting his father's legacy (mayor of Portland) by keeping disreputable company, and then, after his father's death, returning to the fold and renouncing his "degenerate" fellows. This section of the story, which Van Sant fused with the previously unrelated Mike story at some point or another, is played out with stage-y speeches and flowery monologues that intentionally contrast with the rest of the picture; you simply accept it or you don't. It didn't work for me. I would have rather seen the allusion without the direct textual reference. Plus, Keanu Reeves is not the guy you want reciting your ambitious Shakespearean soliloquies. He pales next to Phoenix's strong work as it is, why make him look even more wooden by forcing him to say stuff like, "In my youth, I have wandered irregularly"?

But for the most part, Van Sant is in control, a sharp-eyed artist at the height of his creative prowess (all but beaten into submission in subsequent flirtations with Hollywood and big budgets). Even if it goes over the top, so many things about Idaho are memorable (the sex scenes, for example, are filmed in a series of still poses, with the actors frozen in the act). The whole production has the otherworldly feel of something out of the Warhol studios (Udo Kier acted in a number of Warhol productions, including Blood for Dracula), and it's nice when such a personal, eccentric vision makes it to the screen intact, and so successfully.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: My Own Private Idaho's rich colors comes across nicely on DVD in this excellent anamorphic transfer. Detail is excellent, and color contrast and black level allow the dream-like imagery to really pop off the screen. I noticed no edge enhancement or artifacting of any kind, and the worst thing I can say is that I spotted some dirt on a few shots. A remarkable transfer by any means, but particularly for a low-budget independent film.

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This is a strong but straightforward DD 5.1 mix, with crystal clear dialogue and excellent placement of subtle sound effects across the front soundstage (footsteps, the sound of win whipping across an empty landscape). Surround use is reserved, but the rear channels do at atmosphere and ambiance at times.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Deleted Scenes
3 Documentaries
Packaging: 2 disc slip case
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:55m:07s

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio conversations with Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, JT LeRoy, and Jonathan Caouette
Extras Review: My Own Private Idaho comes to DVD in typically classy Criterion style. Most of the extras (everything but the theatrical trailer) can be found on Disc 2.

The Making of My Own Private Idaho is a new 42-minute documentary that focuses on the production from the viewpoint of the behind the scenes players, minus Van Sant himself. Editor Curtiss Clayton, directors of photography John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, and production designer David Brisbin discuss putting an unconventional movie together on a low budget, and deconstruct some of the most striking scenes.

Kings of the Road is a 44-minute video essay by film scholar Paul Arthur on the film's relationship to the road movie genre, Shakespeare's Henry IV and Orson Welles. Good if you're into textual critique, but it made me feel like I was back in college, and not necessarily in a good way (example: "In the early '90s, the mythic freedom of the road was appropriated by some younger directors as almost a metonymy for the freedom of independent production itself" and Dumb & Dumber is a commentary on "masculine self-identification.")

My Own Private Idaho producer Laurie Parker and River Phoenix's sister Rain (featured in Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) discuss River's commitment to the film and immersion in his character in a new video interview (19:24).

Six deleted scenes total just under 12 minutes of footage and are presented in rough form, out of context and without finished music or sound effects. The deleted scenes screen also houses the "barn scene with scratch," which is simply the shot of the barn falling from the sky with, yes, a big scratch on the film, due to which they ended up shooting it twice.

Disc 2 also includes two lengthy audio-only conversations. The first between Van Sant and Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven), runs a little over two hours and is a discussion of the film and a retrospective on its making. Edited down a bit, this would have made a fine commentary track, and I would have rather it be presented that way than as it is—a static menu with chapter listings. Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (the auto-biographical Tarnation) and writer JT LeRoy (whose book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things inspired a film that didn't get picked up at Sundance this year) discuss Idaho's depiction of the street life with which they are both familiar. I've heard rumors that LeRoy's whole persona is a put-on, and that he's actually a female using the lurid story for publicity's sake, or even, by some accounts, a creation of Van Sant's.

The menus and packaging are well designed and evocative, and I especially like the worn cardboard look of the outer slipcase. The set also includes a 62-page booklet of photographs, essays, and interviews, including text of conversations between Phoenix and Van Sant and Phoenix and Reeves.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

My Own Private Idaho is a groundbreaking, fiercely independent, fearlessly idiosyncratic mish-mash of a film that's somehow more than the sum of its rather confused parts. It's just the right kind of movie for the Criterion Collection, and this two-disc set includes some unusual, illuminating special features.

Joel Cunningham 2005-03-01