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Episode Guide Show Notes

Episode 015: My Own Private Idaho

Recorded on Saturday, August 8, 2020

Director Gus Van Sant’s 1991 feature My Own Private Idaho is a story of unrequited love set against a backdrop of duplicitous fathers, absent mothers, and the homes and families we make for ourselves when wherever it is we came from is nothing more than a dream. Mixing Shakespeare, street hustlers, and the influence of the French New Wave, the film stars River Phoenix as Mike Waters and Keanu Reeves as the object of his affection, Scott Favor, the son of the mayor of Portland — not to mention William Richert as the Falstaffian Bob Pigeon, Flea as his right-hand man Budd, and the inimitable Udo Kier, who delivers perhaps the best cabaret performance ever committed to the screen. Hop aboard, enjoy the ride, and have a nice day. “This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”

Additional thoughts not covered in the episode:

Mike’s father:

  • It’s clear there’s something suspicious regarding Mike’s father from the beginning of the film, when Mike, in an effort to get an extra $10 from Walt, spins a clearly fabricated tale of woe about his father’s drowning in Boxcar Canyon.

A normal dog:

  • When Mike enters Alena’s bedroom, he goes to the window, looks outside, and says, “Backyard.” On the soundtrack, there’s the sound of a dog barking. This is Mike’s impression of a “normal” life, and it foreshadows his campfire conversation with Scott, when he says, “I didn’t have a dog or a normal dad.”
  • In turn, the campfire scene — and specifically Mike’s declaration that he didn’t have a “normal dad” — sets the stage for the sequence in Richard’s trailer, where Mike reveals that his brother is in fact (or at least might be) his father.

A shoulder to cry on:

  • In the Chinese restaurant (which looks a lot like a diner or cafe) where the hustlers hang out, a girl cries on Scott’s shoulder. Similarly, in Italy, after Mike realizes his mother is no longer there, he cries on Scott’s shoulder.

Scott’s duality:

  • When Scott stands before his father, the lighting on Scott suggests his two “faces,” with half of his face brighter than the other.

At home with oneself:

  • Because of his narcolepsy — and because he sells his body to other people — Mike isn’t even at home in his own corporeal form.
  • In Italy, Mike is kept awake by the sounds of Scott and Carmilla having sex. When Mike does want to fall asleep, he can’t.

Back to Portland:

  • The first title card for Portland is green, but the second — when Mike returns from Italy — is blue, perhaps suggesting that the city is now tinged with heartbreak. Or perhaps the blue connotes “waters,” as in Mike’s last name, suggesting that Portland might be as much of a home as Mike will find.

Machismo Mas:

  • When Scott and Carmilla are in the nice restaurant in Portland, Scott is introduced to someone from the Machismo Mas restaurant chain. Scott has cast aside the “effeminate” nature his father earlier mentions (or, one might say, bemoans) and taken on the persona of normative “manliness.”
  • The use of Shakespeare also underscores the roles the characters themselves are playing — particularly Scott, as his time on the street and his return to society both smack of parts he’s playing.

Familiar faces:

  • Robert Lee Pitchlynn (portraying Walt, the john in the blow-job scene) and George Conner (Bad George) had both appeared in Van Sant’s first feature, Mala Noche.
  • Van Sant has a brief cameo as a bellhop behind the desk in the Family Tree hotel. Intentional or not, it’s reminiscent of Pee-wee Herman’s “cameo” in the film-within-the-film of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
  • Van Sant also directed the music video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” also from 1991.

References:

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