My Own Private Idaho


“My Own Private Idaho” is a film that is reflexive back on the original author of the story, William Shakespeare. As one might know, or notice when watching the film, the film’s dialogue seems to be inspired by some kind of old-time poetry. Gus Van Sant loosely based “My Own Private Idaho” on one of the two plots of Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV, in which Henry IV’s son, Prince Harry’s strained relationship with his father leads him to doing rebellious things, ignoring his responsibilities until he gets the money that he will inherit. In “My Own Private Idaho,” this can be seen clearly in the character of Scott Favor. But ironically enough, Mike Waters is the main protagonist of the story, on whose consciousness the film is based.

As one can see clearly, strained relationships and finding a “family” are two common themes between the two works. In Henry IV, Prince Harry’s relationship with his father forces him to look for a “home” or a “family” with whom he can truly be himself and belong. In the film, this is seen in both Scott Favor (Prince Harry’s alterego) and Mike Waters. It seems the film is more interested in depicting Mike’s problems though. Mike, who was traumatized by the abandonment of his mother, suffers from narcolepsy, his automatic response to situations, which remind him of intimate relationships (like the feeling of being caressed by his mother,) and where he feels heightened emotions. He falls asleep during the most crucial times of his life, never being able to confront the situation, and always waking up dazed and confused in another time and place.

From these two characters, the audience is told of how difficult relationships with parents force one to naturally deviate from their family and search elsewhere for a home of their own. The two characters found this, not only in each other, but in the group of “street slummers” led by Bob, an allusion to Falstaff. Though the two of them start amusing themselves with Bob, they nevertheless still regard him highly, as their father. According to Scott, Bob is more his father than his real father. He loves Bob more than both his parents combined. As a family, they did everything with each other, they supported each other in their gimmicks and their plots. But it seems that relationships established by circumstance will always be temporary because bloodlines still prevail. Scott reveals that he never had any intentions of making the relationship last a lifetime. This family was merely for the meantime. When his father dies, he shall inherit a lot of money, he will leave this disrespectful life, and he will assume the responsibilities expected of him. He will do this when it is least expected because then, more people will be amazed at his sudden transformation.

Unfortunately for Bob, Mike, and the rest of the gang, they were misled by Scott and were given false hope. At the end of the film, reminiscent of Prince Harry’s coronation, Scott denounces his relationship with Bob, formally breaking their familial relationship, thus breaking Bob’s heart. Bob dies in the cold from the shock of rejection from the man he fondly called “son” and his burial occurred just a few meters away from the burial of Scott’s father. The obvious difference between the two burials signified the difference between the life that Scott has left behind and the one he is now assuming. Though Scott can’t stop himself from peaking to the other side, he still stands firm in his convictions and carries on his father’s memory through the life that he will now lead.

The background of Scott Favor is very much likened to the story of Prince Harry in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Mike Waters, however, is a deviation from the original story. It is an addition by the director, Gus Van Sant, to the Shakespearean play. It may be considered another modern and loose adaptation of Prince Harry. It is about a man who is currently on the search for his true family. In both cases, it can be seen that no matter how much their biological family rejects them or pushes them away, it still has something tangible that attracts them and holds them together – blood and genes.

Mike’s story tackles more deeply the theme that both authors, Shakespeare and Van Sant, want to approach – finding one’s family. His obvious struggle throughout the film, coupled with his vivid flashbacks of memories with his mother, strongly delivers the message that he is on a journey, not simply from one direction to another, but a journey to find where he belongs. It might be that Van Sant’s intention was to show the audience how the search for belongingness is a lifetime journey, it is a long road that seems to have no end, that “probably goes around the world.” This journey is not about a destination or a location, but a place in one’s life where he can finally come to terms with himself and with the people around him. At the beginning of the film, we see Mike on a long road in Idaho, which looks like a “fucked up place.” This somehow symbolizes the absurdity of Mike’s emotional, psychological, and literal journey throughout the film, only to end up at the same place where, coincidentally, he has been to before as well. The journey is “fucked up” and he announces this in the beginning of the film, but he still continues on the journey nevertheless.

This journey of finding a home, is also a journey of finding your true family. In Shakespeare’s play, it seems that the true family is the one you have biological ties to, even though one can find more comfort in the company of friends. Similarly, in Van Sant’s Mike, your true family is your biological one, no matter how screwed up and unconventional it is. Moreover, this fact cannot seem to be denied, regardless of how much Mike’s mother eluded him.

The explicit and implicit sexuality found throughout the film, I think, can actually be alluded to the film’s author, Gus Van Sant’s, own sexual orientation. As an author, his work represents who he is, what his interests are, and how he projects himself. This is one of the influences that Van Sant had on his loose rendition of Shakespeare’s Henri IV.

The Shakepearean subtlety and sedation found in “My Own Private Idaho” is seen loosely, aside from the plot, on the characters’ lines as well. The lyrical and poetic tone of Mike, Scott, and Bob’s words are actually paraphrases of Shakespeare’s script from his play, Henry IV. Compared to the loud, aggressive, and violent depiction of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus by Julie Taymor, there is no doubt that “My Own Private Idaho” is more tranquil and relaxed. It may also be attributed to the different contents and contexts of the two plays, but it can nevertheless be credited to the two directors’ treatments of the material.


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Interesting links:
My Own Private Idaho Website: has deleted scenes, news clippings, and interesting miscellaneous MOPI stuff
Shakespeare on Film: My Own Private Idaho
What is Family? A Review of "My Own Private Idaho"
Hal Hinson’s Review
Roger Ebert’s Review

As mentioned above, Mike waters is the "central" protagonist in My Own Private Idaho. Despite the character of Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves) being the one more clearly undergoing a change as the plot progressed and despite his apparent passivity which is strange for a protagonist, it's on the narcoleptic hustler, Mike(River Phoenix), that the audience' attention is made to train on. The departure of the audience from Scott Favor feels /"almost like a fade out"/ as their quest to find Mike's "home" comes to its final turning point (i.e. Camilla). To retain the road movie element, with that departure, Scott is seen as returning from the road changed and toting a prize while Mike is abandoned on his unfinished quest to find home.

It is also key to note that directorial decisions and style mostly mirror Mike's state of mind. Its fragmented editing and the dreamlike quality to it lends to an experience that calls to mind the general confusion and feeling of being lost portrayed by Mike. The "subtelty and sedation" mentioned above owes itself in no small part to the implications of his narcoleptic ailment.

Van Sant ties these various elements together by filtering the entire narrative through Mike’s snoozing consciousness. The irony is that the narcoleptic Mike is among the most unconscious characters to ever hit the screen.1

Another theme tackled with such subtlety is the issue of male affection (friendship and, more interestingly, sexual intercourse between men). The vehicle used to explore such a topic is the element of male prostitution, of which Van Sant attempted an earnest on screen /representation/. Although the events that led both Mike and Scott to the hustler scene is undisclosed in the film, it remains an effective device to expose the both leads that form of sexual relations.

Scott using sex to unload a bike on Hans

For Scott Favor, it's clear that his philosophy regarding sex is that of it being a tool for personal gain. Not only does it keep him moneyed before his inheritance takes effect, he appropriates the act in order to further his plan to defy his father. The walkway scene with Bob where Scott waxes on about his future (using faux-Shakespearean lingo) and where his super want is revealed - to turn upstanding when his father least expected it of him- foreshadowed his later actions of repeated exploitation of Hans (Udo Kier) and the rejection of Mike's admission of unpaid love.

Mike professes love

For Mike, however, male affection is a little bit more than just a tool. It can be said that his involvement with prostitution is attributed to his dysfunctional upbringing, that selling his body is a means to stay afloat, or simply, alive given his inability to will himself to stay awake. Yet, that would be as dismal a portrayal of sex between men as Scott's reasoning. In fact, where it not for the revision actor River Phoenix made on the original script, the film would have taken a very negative slant on that issue.

Originally, the screenplay was rather nebulous in its view of whether Mike was gay or not. It was Phoenix who decided to make Mike gay and this change only strengthened the character and improved the film.2

Scott cradling an unconscious Mike

All we would have had to go with on the matter of male affection is Scott's sex-for-pay notion of men bedding men. Mike's profession of bro love in the campfire scene hinted at a deeper reason to feel love for another man, perhaps because it feels like a legitimate "home" to the lost Mike.

The movie, being a road movie, presupposes various interpretations (as movies always are subjected to the audience's perceptions), but one thing that remained a constant, as stated by the first two comments, was that it was an emphasis of Mike's journey to find himself and "home". Throughout the film we are subjected to flashbacks which reflect the inner-workings of Mike's mind. They contain images of peaceful mountain rivers, fish, buildings which fall to the ground, shots of a woman (Mike's mother) and a ranch-style house, and other incidental material.

Both internal and external conflict are present in My Own Private Idaho. Internally, Mike is dealing with the fact that he cannot find his mother. This causes much grief for him, and is most likely a contributing factor in his narcolepsy. Externally, there is the friendship between Scott and Mike which is abruptly placed on hold when Scott falls in love while visiting Italy. There is also the rocky relationship between Scott and his rich father. For some reason, Scott finds it necessary to annoy his father by avoiding him and participating in activities his father would never approve of. And agreeing to what the second commentator pointed out, Scotty finds sex just as a tool for personal gain; he does it because it gives him money before he gets his inheritance, and for the fact that he enjoys veering away from his father's rigid enforcements and shadow.

Gus Van Sant is a quiet man himself, such that an assistant sometimes has to repeat cues that he has mumbled into the megaphone. He keeps to himself, hidden behind a veil of deep thought. Van Sant has been called eccentric, as he asks that his actors perform the scene several times before the camera even begins rolling. Characterization is very important to Van Sant, and he prefers that his actors try to remain in-character while they are not being filmed. By doing this, he feels that they will appear more natural when they are in front of the camera. This is easy for Phoenix and Reeves, as both are personality actors. Van Sant employs several methods of characterization in My Own Private Idaho. The characterization of those living in the slums is primarily by external action and appearance, as they are typically flat characters added simply to help the story along. Bob's character is developed by appearance and dialog, but primarily through the reactions of other characters. The main characters, Scott and Mike, are established through dialog, appearance, and external action. Another important technique used by Van Sant for River Phoenix's character is characterization by internal action. Throughout the film we are presented with brief clips which indicate his thoughts and feelings. This can also be thought of as a form of symbolism.

Indulging on my subjectivity, the symbolism of the "(smiley) face" was something that left me confounded even after the end-credits were rolled. At the beginning of the film, and when Mike returns to the Idaho highway, he looks off to the distance and comments about how the mountains and clouds look like "a … face." In another scene, Scott lies down on a bed, staring up at a ceiling lamp which is decorated with multicolored smiley faces. At the end of the film, previous to the credits, the legend "have a nice day" is displayed on the screen. For those who were raised in a cave, the phrase "have a nice day" as often accompanied by the image of the smiley face. It is this quirk, and many others, that retains the reflexive attitude of My Own Private Idaho.

Although infused with emotions and sentiments that everyone can relate to, it's with the last scene of the film where Mike is alone in the desert on the same road as the beginning of the film where the emotional impact climaxes. Scott is gone, living a life of his own and Mike is in the middle of a empty street staring at the horizon, abandoned. He falls to the road in another bout of narcolepsy. A car drives up to his body and stops. Two people get out and walk over to his body to only steal the shoes off of his feet. They drive away. A next car drives up and stops. A person gets out and picks up Mike placing him in the back seat of his car. The car drives off into the distance and this is the last we see of Mike. The sad part is that Mike was alone, abandoned and weak. He's picked up by a stranger and taken away. What faces his character is what's left up to the viewer to determine for themselves. Seeing as how Mike's luck kept wearing out through the film and he kept plunging into worse and worse situations, one can only imagine what might become of him.


‘My Own Private Idaho,’ loosely based on William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV, Part 1,’ is a brazen, unflinching glimpse into an obscure world that exists just beneath what we recognize as our own. The film follows a couple of best friends who, as it turns out, also happen to be male prostitutes prolific in their trade along the remote American Midwest, all the way up to the Pacific Northwest. With Gus van Sant at the helm and in top form, these two young men (played by Keanu Reeves and the occasionally brilliant River Phoenix) become more than just sympathetic but almost recognizable, even to a foreign viewer from an alien culture half a world away. The film’s main characters, and indeed, the film itself may unabashedly present themselves as purveyors of greatly skewed morality, but their treatment is such that any violation of appreciable social custom is more or less excusable as one begins to root for, to befriend these characters, this milieu. Their values may be particular, but their desire to find themselves, to find their family and a place to keep their love is universal.

One can’t help but become attached as observers, as fellow travelers, along with these men. They take us across the desert, across the United States, across the vast Atlantic, even through the underworld of dreams and ultimately back to the beginning again, all in a desperate search for what is a most basic human need: somewhere to belong. The film is a virtual tour-de-force in stripped-down, restrained style and tension, and an eclectic study in character development. Ironic though it may be, it took a film about getting lost to put the ever valuable van Sant on the map of greater consciousness and recognition. ‘My Own Private Idaho’ is aptly titled, as it transcends differences and becomes one’s own, private journey through the desolate desert and back again.


River Phoenix's Interview on MOPI:

Interesting Links:
My Own Private Idaho Script
Review on "My Own Private Idaho"

Submitted by: 053106

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