When I was young, and you were my street tutor…

Do you recognise that line? Here is more from the screenplay:

               Who is that bum?
     Scottie turns and meets Bob, who kneels next to him.
               Please leave me alone.
     Bob is thinking that Scottie's attitude is a joke.
               Don't think that I'm the same 
               Scottie that I was before. 
               Everyone has noticed that I have 
               turned away from that life, and 
               the people who kept me company.

     Bob is shocked.
     Outside, Mike can see through the windows of the restaurant, Bob 
     and Scottie talking.
     Int. Jakes. night.
               When I was young, and you were my 
               street tutor. An instigator for my 
               bad behavior, I was trying to 
               change. Now that I have, and until 
               I change back   don't come near 

     Bob feels the rejection like a shock. Stares at Scott for a 
     second, then he's pulled away by the bouncer.

Yes, it’s My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant 1991).  The scene parallels Shakespeare:

Enter KING HENRY V and his train, the Lord Chief- Justice among them

FALSTAFF  God save thy grace, King Hal! my royal Hal!

PISTOL  The heavens thee guard and keep, most royal imp of fame!

FALSTAFF  God save thee, my sweet boy!

KING HENRY V  My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?

FALSTAFF  My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

KING HENRY V  I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;

But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

Of all things I was thinking of the nudie romps of young Prince Harry and wondering if the family ever calls him Hal when I decided to give my copy of My Own Private Idaho a run, nothing on TV much appealing to me.


I’ve had that since 2007: “I am just back from a checkup at the Redfern doctor’s. Nice day for a bit of a walk around Redfern, and I found some good bargains at the Video-Ezy…” And I had never watched the second disk!  Well now I have and there is some excellent material there. The movie itself I first saw with M at the cinema in Sydney in 1991. First viewing I was of course intrigued by the appropriation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, though that meant nothing to M, being from Shanghai, who nonetheless enjoyed the movie at many of its other levels. I plan to watch it again later today. I am again intrigued.


It is rather obvious what is being evoked in that still.

I hadn’t known about this.

On the night James Franco hosted the Oscars, the show featured a segment in which veteran Oscars host Bob Hope was digitally brought back to life to compere one more time. It typified an Academy Awards show this year that rather failed to reconcile its desire to appeal to younger audiences with its need to remain reverential to its legacy.

Getting much less attention not far from the Kodak theatre, in Beverly Hills, was a gallery exhibition called Unfinished, where just two days prior to Oscar night Franco had presided over the rebirth of another fallen star. Working with director Gus van Sant, Franco launched a powerful installation of video art, cutting a 100-minute film full of unseen footage of River Phoenix from the dailies of Van Sant’s modern day classic My Own Private Idaho.

Showing alongside a series of watercolours by Van Sant designed to recall the colourful cast of hip and troubled teenagers that populated the 1991 release, which also starred Keanu Reeves, Franco’s film is by far the more interesting work. Through thick, ragged curtains, which hang from the gallery’s high ceilings, the film’s viewing space is dotted with threadbare sofas, folding chairs and an instant coffee dispenser…

River Phoenix died of an overdose just two years after making Idaho, leaving behind a powerful legacy of performance which included Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast and an Oscar-nominated turn in Running on Empty. But as the drug-taking, narcoleptic street hustler Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix delivered the gutsiest performance of his career and was rewarded with an Independent Spirit award for best male lead.

Franco calls his film My Own Private River and presents it as his study of the performance of one of the most talented young actors of the 80s and 90s. Van Sant shot hours of footage of his actors doing little more than living out their characters’ lives, and this forms the backbone of Franco’s re-edit. There’s a basic structure, as we follow Mike Waters around Portland, Oregon, shopping at a grocery store, scoring drugs and having sex with clients, but there’s no real narrative on offer.

The footage is set to its raw soundtrack, so what dialogue there is tends to be muffled or entirely inaudible, and it’s punctuated with meditative scenes in which very little happens at all. The piece isn’t about an actor translating a script, but rather an actor displaying natural instinct and real nuance for his craft, and it’s made all the more powerful by the knowledge of what happened next in his life…

Have a look at this very personal and also very insightful post from September 2011:


MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO is a flawed movie, to put it mildly, but the flaws fall away in the famous campfire scene where Mike confesses his love to Scott. Van Sant had written this scene as just a passing fancy where Mike hits on Scott because he’s bored and horny. In his script, Van Sant indicated some sexual contact between them, but he left it up to the actors to take it as far as they wanted. As Van Sant originally conceived them, Scott and Mike weren’t gay or straight but viewed sex only as a job. Phoenix had befriended the gay cameraman Bobby Bukowski on the movie Dogfight (1991), and Bukowski supposedly influenced Phoenix to make Mike specifically gay. Phoenix wrote most of the campfire scene himself.

“If I had a normal family and a good upbringing then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” Mike says to Scott, in his soft, measured, uncertain voice, as they recline by the fire together (he spends the whole film looking for his lost mother, while Scott spends most of the movie putting off his powerful mayor father). Scott laughs at Mike a little as he continues to talk about wanting a normal life, a normal Mom, a dog. “So you didn’t have a normal dog?” Scott asks. Reeves is totally in tune with the film’s dry humor here, but the pre-occupied Mike doesn’t get Scott’s joke. “No, I didn’t have a dog,” he says, either unwilling or unable to joke around with Scott. “What’s a normal Dad?” Scott suddenly asks, dropping his cooler-than-thou act and posing a question that he really wants an answer to…

Part of me hates My Own Private Idaho and how the true things in it come out of the compromises in it that needed to be made. Part of me wishes I’d not seen My Own Private Idaho when I was 15, yet the film is so much a part of who I am that it feels unavoidable, not just in its confession of love that leads to total ruin but in sexual templates with older men that were laid down for me like the law. Mike embraces his last older john with a mixture of confused, slightly disgusted tenderness and I know now that such encounters were in front of me at 15 and are now mainly behind me (there’s only so long you can turn certain tricks, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois). As I move within hailing distance of becoming Daddy Carroll, it feels more important to me to figure out what it was like to be Mike, and whether love should ever be confessed as he confesses it…

Scott takes up with an Italian girl in the last third of Idaho, and the abandoned Mike is last seen in a narcoleptic blackout on a long stretch of highway. After two truckers steal his shoes, the camera lifts upward and we see a cab pull up to Mike’s prostrate body. A youngish man gets out to put Mike in the cab, which then drives off. I’d always hoped as a teenager that this man was Scott, but on the Criterion DVD, it’s revealed that the man was supposed to be Mike’s brother (James Russo), who might also be his father. Van Sant, however, decided to leave the man’s identity ambiguous. In a conversation with Todd Haynes on the DVD, Van Sant even wonders if this mystery man might be a farmer who could take Mike in and let him rest. Maybe, he says, Mike will even find a boy to love on this farm. To which I say, Mary, please.

Van Sant’s pipe dream for Mike sounds about as likely as the story Tennessee Williams told Claire Bloom when she asked him what happens to Blanche after she’s led away to the nuthouse at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams told Bloom that Blanche would charm the asylum doctors and eventually be released to open a charming boutique in the French Quarter with her sister Stella. That might have been the sentimentality of too much liquor talking, but so many gay men are romantic dreamers, so eager to please, so tempted by self-pity, so ready to be cradled after a confession of love, so hungry for unlikely happy endings. I’m sorry, Gus, but Mike looks to me like he’s on the last rung down to the graveyard, where he will join the actor who played him so passionately along with all the other unrealistic hopes that outsiders try to shelter in their work because they’ve been blown to bits in real life. And if you say, “To hell with real life,” I’m afraid that real life will eventually say, “To hell with you,” in this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching…

Looking forward to watching the movie again. It really does grow on you, and I am not sure it is quite as flawed as Dan Callahan thinks. On the second disk is a very interesting commentary called Kings of the Road that really opens the movie for me. I commend it to you.

… Next up is “The Making of My Own Private Idaho,” a documentary that runs about 40 minutes and includes editor Curtis Clayton, directors of photography John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards and production designer David Brisbin talking about the film’s development, production and post-production. Good stuff, if you enjoy going beyond the principal creatives to find out what other above-the-line people think about filmmaking.

“Kings of the Road” is almost 45 minutes and features critic Paul Arthur explaining how Van Sant weaved the Shakespeare plays, Orson Welles’ “Falstaff” and influences from previous road movies into a unique work. This is the sort of stuff you rarely see in big studio releases; it’s certainly aimed at those who want to not only learn more about a movie but also think about its major themes and ideas.

River Phoenix’s legacy is remembered in a conversation between producer Laurie Parker and River’s younger sister, Rain, that clocks in at almost 20 minutes. It’s a pretty candid look at an actor who tragically died way too early. River Phoenix had a lot to offer the film world.

Since “My Own Private Idaho” features homelessness pretty prominently, it only makes sense that LeRoy and director Jonathan Caouette would sit down to talk about how their own street experiences have influenced their work, I suppose. Both have connections to Van Sant—he produced Caouette’s film “Tarnation” and used LeRoy’s screenplay for his film “Elephant”—but beyond that, I’m not sure these two deserve more than 50 minutes of special features space for their discussion, especially when you consider that this is another audio-only track…

I did watch it again

21 years! I just can’t believe it. The movie did not disappoint.