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Arts & Culture

FilmOut San Diego Screens 'My Own Private Idaho'

Keanu Reeves as Scott Favor cradles River Phoenix who plays Mike Waters, a narcoleptic gay hustler in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho."Sant's
Fine Line Features
Keanu Reeves as Scott Favor cradles River Phoenix who plays Mike Waters, a narcoleptic gay hustler in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho."Sant's

Gus Van Sant's groundbreaking film celebrates its 25th anniversary

Film Review: 'My Own Private Idaho'
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the 25th anniversary screening of "My Own Private Idaho."

FilmOut San Diego is hosting a 25th Anniversary screening of Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” tomorrow (Wednesday) at 7pm at Hillcrest Cinemas. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says it’s an innovative take on the Bard. Gus Van Sant uses Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” as inspiration for “My Own Private Idaho.” Scott Favor is a character similar to Prince Hal – a young man leading a reckless life much to the dismay of his politically powerful father. But it’s all a ploy. CLIP When I turn 21 I want no more of this life, I will change when everybody expects it the least. But it’s Scott’s cohort Mike, a narcoleptic gay hustler played by River Phoenix that provides the film with its sweetly tragic soul. CLIP If I had a normal family and a normal upbringing I’d be a well-adjusted person. “My Own Private Idaho” revels in the physical beauty of Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, and delivers a beguiling cinematic poem. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion viewing

"Mala Noche" (1986)

"Mysterious Skin" (2004)

"The Hollow Crown" (2012)

FilmOut San Diego is hosting a 25th anniversary screening of Gus Van Sant's innovative take on the Bard, "My Own Private Idaho," on Wednesday.

Gus Van Sant uses Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” as inspiration for “My Own Private Idaho.” Shakespeare’s historical play looks at the power struggle in England as Henry Bolingbroke takes over the throne after deposing Richard II. King Henry IV, however, suffers from a guilty conscience and from frustration over how his only heir, Prince Hal, is cavorting with thieves and prostitutes.

Van Sant takes the core dynamics and reimagines them in a new modern world. Keanu Reeves plays Scott Favor, a character similar to Prince Hal — a young man leading a reckless life much to the dismay of his politically powerful father. But it’s all a ploy.

He explains, “When I turn 21 I want no more of this life. I will change when everybody expects it the least.”

But in the meantime, he wastes his time with the degenerate Bob Pigeon (William Richert doing a brilliant spin on Falstaff) and with a narcoleptic gay hustler named Mike Waters (River Phoenix in one of his best roles). Scott and Mike hit the road in search of Mike’s estranged mother for a strange and mesmerizing journey.

In 1991, Van Sant was basking in the critical acclaim for “Drugstore Cowboy.” But “My Own Private Idaho” (which takes its title from a B52’s song) challenged audiences. The “gay hustler” film may seem a cliché now and the overt sexuality a bit tame by today’s standards, but when “My Own Private Idaho” came out it was groundbreaking in many ways.

Michael McQuiggan, FilmOut’s programmer, said:

For 2016, we decided to include a few seminal LGBT films that were celebrating milestone anniversaries and this was one of the first choices. Van Sant's film at the time of its initial release 25 years was revelatory in terms of its bold direction, loose Shakespearean homage to ‘Henry IV,’ themes of male hustling/drug use and risqué casting of mainstream Hollywood actors (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves — early roles for both) appearing in a major motion picture with a slant to the independent film dealing with ‘real and honest themes.’

Van Sant challenged viewers with his opening scene of Mike receiving oral sex in a hotel room. But he also challenged them with a narrative that was told in part by a narcoleptic character that kept falling asleep and leaving us with gaps in the story. But Van Sant, in the peak of his creativity, delivers a film that beguiles us with its cinematic experimentation and I am eager to see how the film plays 25 years later. I have not seen it in years but it’s a film that has gotten better with each viewing.

“We are hoping that we can bring in a new generation to experience this film for the first time, along with the generation that has seen this film and wants to reconnect with it,” McQuiggan said.

Reeves’ talent is stretched by Van Sant’s Shakespeare inspired tale. He has a beauty that Van Sant plays up to great effect but Reeves has trouble with emotional subtleties.

Phoenix, on the other hand, has a physical presence the camera loves as well as exquisite skills as an actor. Phoenix’s Mike gives the film its sweetly tragic soul. At one point, his Mike confides to Scott, “If I had a normal family and a normal upbringing, I’d be a well-adjusted person.” It’s a tender moment and reflects such a simple desire. His performance is the most memorable and endearing thing about this elegant and beguiling cinematic poem.

“My Own Private Idaho” (rated R for strong sensuality, language and drug use) screens at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 13 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. It is part of FilmOut’s ongoing monthly film series.

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