My Own Private Idaho is a celebration of River Phoenix. This was an actor, an artist, creating at his peak before going out too young. The best thing you can say about an actor is when they’re doing the work perfectly, you can’t even notice they’re acting. That’s Phoenix’s story, where he emerges with Gus Van Sant as joint auteurs empowering one another to make beautiful, ugly art.
Playing at the North Bend Film Festival this weekend, My Own Private Idaho is a certain kind of Northwest film. It’s a film about a certain kind of displacement that is functionally a Pacific Northwest attitude. Our story concerns Phoenix as a male prostitute with narcolepsy—who falls asleep at all the wrong times, including on the job. We’re graced with a complimentary performance by Keanu Reeves as a fellow prostitute, caretaker, and friend. The two men search for meaning in the empty nothingness of their lives—prowling the streets of Seattle, Portland, Idaho, and Italy for love and comfort and not finding it. It doesn’t matter where they go; everyplace is their Own Private Idaho.
This is a film with a non-explicit Shakespearean bent. It’ll flow from documentary filmmaking about the lives of an actual prostitute to a stage play of Henry IV. While it may show the gross juxtaposition of our art and our artist’s habits, it unfolds like many different movies packaged together at once. It was heralded originally as New Wave Queer cinema, and it still sits at the upper-echelon of that category. It contains multitudes of striking scenes. Barns falling from the sky and demolishing with the rise of a sexual climax. An inventive take of our leads talking to each other while existing within the covers of gay porn magazines. A campfire scene that reminds us of the great love and compassion cinema contains, apparently created on-the-fly by Phoenix, if you ever doubt this is his work of staggering genius.
My Own Private Idaho consolidates the relationship between the actor and his source material. We understand Phoenix within the context of a hypnotic road movie about a lost soul. It is a totem to his own life and that of many who get lost in the upper-left corners of America. It’s a special kind of hallucinatory exploration, where time and place don’t matter, and we’re likely to sleep through the tremendous moments of change in-between.
This film came at an interesting time for Van Sant, bridging the period between the phenomenal Drugstore Cowboy and Good Will Hunting, those films he made for an audience. With that, we understand the interpersonal importance of My Own Private Idaho. This is a movie that matters to its author. I can’t give anything a greater recommendation than that. This is something like auteur theory running at its greatest capacity. And at the North Bend Film Festival, it continues to shine as a resounding work of the Pacific Northwest, an instructive example of what our cinema could be.