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My Own Private Idaho

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caveat emptor: this was written w/o proofreading or editing of any sort. Read only if you want to immerse yourself in something closely resembling a drunken ramble. Consider yourself fairly warned.

I have a VHS copy of My Own Private Idaho sitting on my shelf (that belongs to my friend Robb – sorry Robb.) I attempted to watch it some 5 years back (at the humble age of sixteen – that’s right you dancers, I’m 21. The cat’s out of the bag.) and mostly failed. Mostly because I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw, but stopped seeing right at the point when Mike (River Phoenix) is left by Scott. Why? I can’t remember, but it was probably due to my then-girlfriend, whose filmic tastes began at Tarzan and ended at The Matrix. Chances are I was watching it when she came over – needless to say (hell if that’ll stop me), a surreal art film about two grimy street-hustlers – one a narcoleptic, the other a Shakespeare spouting heir apparent – wasn’t exactly her cup of tea. Yet again needless to say (and yet again hellfire will not hold me back), we soon parted ways. Things I remember about My Own Private Idaho from way back when:

    Some type of homosexuality
    A bizarre middle bit with a fat man and Shakespearean language
    Not bros before ho’s
    A road

I wasn’t wrong, per se, but I wasn’t exactly right-the-fuck-on either. My rememberances (ah! the good ol’ days) were much like when your mom asks you, “So honey, what have you been up to?” And, not wanting to mention the excessive drinking and general state of apathy, you reply, “Oh, you know – stuff.”

I see now that I should have dumped the girlfriend earlier. I also see now that the Shakespearean bit in the middle is really a neat little recapitulation of Henry IV, pt. I, with Scott (Keanu Reeves) as Prince Hal, his father as Bolingbroke (aka Henry IV), and Bob as Falstaff. It’s charming, really. What was Van Sant after with this, though? Possibly he really liked Henry IV, pt. I (as he should – it contains W.S.’s best scenes outside of Henry V and Hamlet), or maybe he was after something.

I assume all of you are familiar with both Henry IV, pt. I and My Own Private Idaho. But, in order to avoid embarrassment, a refresher. Henry IV, pt. I (heretofore H41) is the second part in Shakespeare’s tetralogy, which deals with the dethronement of Richard II, the rise of Henry IV, his fall, and his son’s (Henry V) rise and fall. It’s great reading, really. H41 deals mainly with the idea time v. power, but also of (now listen closely, because this part concerns the matter at hand) societal position (class) & the differences in treatment of class. Van Sant latched onto this last part, but also added a twist of lime to call his own: Mike is none of the characters in H41, so where does that leave him? It leaves him alone, meaning that Van Sant added something slightly foreign to W.S. – the idea of the loneliness of man.

Scott is the hero of this squalorly group of midnight cowboys, the rich kid slumming it up a bit in order to rebel against daddy. For the rest of the band, he’s a one-way ticket out of the gutters. When his father dies (i.e. dethroned), he inherits a lot of money, putting him and his friends in the black for life. Mike is Scott’s best-friend. He’s A-OK, #2, the right-hand man. But the deal is, class is permanent. Just as Mike cannot become a member of the jet-set elite, Scott cannot permanently “reduce” himself to the tier of “street-walker.” Van Sant is using tired cliches (rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags, class warfare) in order to examine homosexuality, love, and the very real differences between, say, myself and Steve Jobs. When Scott actually inherits his father’s money he abandons the gutter life for opulence, opting for the sure thing rather than a life of caprice. Van Sant leaves it open – who’s better off? This group of baudy young men and women, or the stable and permanent Scott? Which, in the end, is truly alone?

To over-intellectualize the film is miss the point though – My Own Private Idaho is, above all, fun. Inventions and digressions abound; your best bet is to merely revel in it.

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About Michael Kanbergs

  • sulizano

    This film has the best funeral scene ever — a bunch of homeless hoods singing “Bob!” accompanied by accordian followed by a massive pile-on on the casket.

  • Michael Kanbergs

    Well – another great thing I (accidentally) ignored.

    I completely agree – and it’s fantastic when juxtaposed against the funeral for Scott’s father.

  • Alona

    I enjoyed it greatly.
    Im actually writin an essay on the film and henry IV…
    Rock on.