Length: 104 minutes
Director: Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting; Drugstore Cowboy)
Writer: Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy; Elephant)
Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, Jim Caviezel, Flea, James Russo, William Richert, Chiara Caselli, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Michael Parker, Jessie Thomas, Rodney Harvey, Brian Wilson, Tiger Warren, Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant and the word pretentious just go together. I think he himself is woefully aware of his own pretentious leanings and plays towards them and doesn’t care if you, the viewer, like it or not. For that I highly respect him. After receiving his first best director Oscar nomination for the extremely overrated “Good Will Hunting” (after the Oscars really fucked up and omitted both him and Spike Lee in 1989 for Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” and Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”), he was all set to go in Hollywood. His prior try out for the non-indie circuit, the wicked and excellent dark comedy, “To Die For”, didn’t make a big enough splash to ensure him a front door entrance. “Good Will” certainly did though, and after the curious scene by scene remake of “Psycho”, he made a cookie cutter “Good Will” clone called “Finding Forrester”, which rightfully failed at the box office (“Who’s the man now, dawg?”). What to do next? Make a trilogy of extremely slow paced, beautifully filmed movies about real life and how people actually react to situations: “Elephant”- one of the best films I’ve ever seen- a thinly disguised take on the Columbine massacre; “Gerry”- about two men who get lost in the desert and have to face the fact that they are probably going to die; and “Last Days”, the only unsuccessful one (in my opinion)- a fictionalized account of Kurt Cobain’s final days before his suicide. He hasn’t gone back to the studios since and all three of those films were either highly praised or highly criticized, with you guessed it- the word “pretentious” being the front runner of all the critiques. Yet, these were many of the same critics that adored Van Sant’s follow-up to his career breakout “Drugstore Cowboy”- a movie called “My Private Idaho”- a gay road trip movie based on Shakespeare’s plays “Henry IV” and “Henry V” (modernly updated naturally). The movie, mainly due to it’s gay content and River Phoenix’s outstanding performance, has gained a massive cult audience since it’s release and is considered Van Sant’s masterpiece by most critics. How they can let this one slip by without the “P” word being thrown out and rail on “Gerry” is beyond me. “Idaho” literally screams with pretentiousness at the viewer from the screen. The sex scenes, for example, are shot with the actors/actresses standing completely still, shot by shot moved into different positions, yet never physically moving themselves. Not to mention the use of the Shakespeare dialogue (long before Baz Luhrmann made it cinematically acceptable). The movie also wanders around rather aimlessly. It’s gay hustler heroes- Mike (Phoenix), a narcoleptic who desperately wants to find his mother, and Scott (Keanu Reeves- very, very good believe it or not), a traveler in the world of depravity as his father’s fortune will soon also be his own- kind of just show up from place to place. Hustling in Portland, going to Europe in search of Mike’s mom, Mike waking up alone in Idaho… It’s certainly not a movie for everyone and when it was over I wasn’t sure if it was a movie for me. I do consider myself a fan of Van Sant. Even when he fails, as in “Last Days”, I admire the heart and soul he puts into his pictures. He is no lazy director and he is someone who generally appreciates that he has the opportunity to make motion pictures and gets the chance to use them as an actual art form instead of as a cash cow (minus “Finding Forrester” of course). “My Own Private Idaho” is a love it or hate it kind of movie, though I found myself stuck right in the middle of love and ambivalence instead. It was hard to ignore the brilliant performances, but it was also hard not roll my eyes a lot. “We have heard the chimes at midnight”.
Buy the DVD Here (Criterion)