I am thirteen years old. We are on a family vacation. It is the summer before 8th grade, and I have a small cluster of pimples scattered across my chin for the very first time. We have just returned from dinner and we sit down on the couch together, the four of us, to watch the movie I picked out at the video store earlier in the day. I had chosen My Own Private Idaho—actually managing to convince my parents to let us get something R-rated—almost entirely due to the fact that my dad had loved Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure a couple of years before, my mom had really liked Running on Empty around that same time, and I was just starting to be old enough to like the idea of River Phoenix and all the rebellion I imagined he represented. Also, it had the word “Idaho” in the title, and we had lived there once, for exactly one year, when I was four years old.
It turns out, though, that these are actually really terrible criteria for selecting a movie to watch with your sheltering parents and younger sister on a family vacation.
And, if only the internet had existed back then, all of what was about to happen could have been avoided entirely. My parents would certainly have consulted some site like this before allowing us to watch any rated-R movie, and would quickly have discovered that “this film about street hustlers contains frequent references to and sometimes scenes of gay male prostitution. The hustlers in the film use drugs (cocaine) and alcohol frequently, and they also steal and lie to each other. There is frequent cursing throughout (“f–k”).” But, of course, the internet wasn’t around yet. Thanks for nothing, Al Gore.
Thus did it transpire that our family soon experienced what could fairly be deemed “an uncomfortable moment.” About five minutes in, after a gorgeously constructed opening montage that I was in no way old enough to appreciate yet (but would one day write an entire paper on in college, natch), the film cuts to River Phoenix, in a chair, getting a blow job from an old man. A house crashes down from the sky as Phoenix climaxes, and the man throws some money on his bare chest. At that point, my parents decided that my mom should accompany my younger sister out of the room. My dad and I made it another fifteen minutes or so—fifteen very uncomfortable minutes—before he turned to me and said “Hey, let’s turn this off.” Followed rather quickly by “Why did you pick this?”
We never really spoke of it again after that, at least not directly, but the next time around my sister picked out the movie for Family Movie Night. It was abundantly clear to all involved that I wouldn’t be the one picking out much of anything again for a very long time. My taste was now forever suspect, my selection privileges suspended.
When I was finally given another chance months later, I picked Airplane! instead.
I am in my early 20s and alone in my Seattle apartment. It is the middle of winter. My roommate is gone for the night, which is fine because we’re not really speaking to one another these days anyway. I still have a smattering of pimples. I am a junior in college, working part-time in a video store, with basically no idea of what I want to do with my life. I try to call my parents at least once a week, but sometimes I forget. I watch a lot of movies, attempt to play music and write stories, and am slowly making my way toward an English degree at the University of Washington. I have a lot of anxiety. Often, I feel completely lost.
I watch My Own Private Idaho—having brought home a VHS copy from the store after finishing up my closing shift—and I have an experience with it. Especially near the beginning, tearing up unexpectedly as Phoenix imagines resting his head on his mother’s lap, as she runs her fingers through his hair and tries to comfort him: Don’t worry, everything is going to be alright.
I feel less alone and more alone all at once.
I miss my family, or more specifically, a sense of home. Because home no longer existed for me, at least not outside of my memories of it; I could go back to the actual house, walk among its rooms, but it was no longer a place that I lived. It was now somewhere I had outgrown and moved away from. My old bedroom had already been turned into a makeshift home office; my younger sister had left for college the year before. I was living on my own, feeling adrift, and desperately missing the stability of a place to call home, and a mother who could soothe all worries with a few well-chosen words.
Soon after that night, I start to think of My Own Private Idaho as one of my very favorite movies. I mourn the loss of River Phoenix like never before, watching every film he ever made, and all of Gus Van Sant’s as well. I switch my college major to film.
I am in my mid–30s. I own the Criterion Special Edition 2-DVD set of My Own Private Idaho. I bought it the very day it came out, years ago, but still haven’t watched it. I know that it once meant a whole lot to me, but I’m worried that maybe it no longer will. Maybe I’m scared of that—of it not being what I remembered of it—or maybe I’m worried that it’s exactly the same, but that I’m simply too different now to connect with it, that it can’t possibly speak to me in that way something does when you’re twenty years old and everything seems so impossibly urgent.
I’m married now. I have a mortgage and other assorted monthly bills, which I pay on time. I’m a family man with a respectable job, two wonderful kids, and a truckful of adult responsibilities. And I’m not sure how My Own Private Idaho fits into any of that, exactly.
I finally force myself to rewatch it by assigning myself the film for this issue of the magazine, and then I quickly commission accompanying artwork from an artist I greatly admire to make sure I can’t wiggle my way out of actually writing the essay. I watch the film, and engage with My Own Private Idaho all over again.
It is exactly how I remembered it. It is nothing like how I remembered it.
The film opens like this: a dictionary definition of narcolepsy, a bright blue title card that reads “Idaho”, and then a shot of a vast, empty, endless road. Mike (Phoenix) enters the frame, wanders around it, looks at a pocket watch intently. His bag falls over behind him. Music floats underneath the scene, lulling, vaguely nostalgic, or graceful, or both. A couple of minutes pass, in the middle of nowhere Idaho, as he considers the road:
I always know where I am by the way the road looks…There’s not another road anywhere that looks like this road – I mean exactly like this road. It’s one kind of place, one of a kind.
Clouds pass by, the sky a pale blue eternity. His hand begins to shake, his eyes twitch and roll. He falls over in the middle of the road, asleep.
We are always, all of us, looking for home. Literally and figuratively, so many of our maps point us back there. Most of us have a sense of something lost now. Something resembling warmth and comfort and belonging. Something nostalgia can only ever barely get at. We spend our entire lives searching for our lives.
Home—either the endless quest for it, or the pushing away from its trappings—runs through Idaho just as much as any road does. Home as an imagined mother that will always hold us, or a demonized father that we struggle to escape. The pre-verbal comfort of loving arms juxtaposed with a developmental need to grow wings and fly away. An endless, aching search for love and context.
Mike is a lost and vulnerable soul, a drifting narcoleptic, a male street hustler with a hard time following through on things. He falls asleep at the best of the times and the worst of times. His wounded but hopeful, almost childlike search for love and comfort—from a lost mother, a difficult brother/father, a straight best friend, a half-remembered sense of home—leads him down many different roads, literally and figuratively, both on purpose and by accident.
He wakes up in Portland, Seattle, Idaho, even Rome. He’s forever chasing the vapor trail left by his mother, who abandoned him so many years ago. He was almost too young to remember, but not quite. Memories still flicker in his mind, remembered as old home movies shot on grainy Super 8, scenes of her smiling, waving, dancing.
He will always be chasing her—the love and the home she represents—even when he’s not. But he’s managed to put together a makeshift family of sorts in the meantime; a patchwork quilt of fellow NW street kids and hustlers that try to keep each other safe, afloat, and entertained.
One of these hustlers, his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), is mostly vamping, prostituting himself to defy and disgust his rich and powerful father, while waiting to gain access to his large inheritance. Whereas Mike spends the film looking for his lost mother, Scott spends a good deal of it decidedly pushing his family away.
“If I had a normal family, and a good up-bringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person,” says Mike, as he and Scott huddle around a campfire one night.
“What’s a normal Dad?” Scott replies.
My Own Private Idaho is beautiful, liminal, disorienting. It’s a film full of references, allusions, and visual poetry—a (literal) smashing together of two different screenplays and a short story, all written by Van Sant, that seem to clash awkwardly into one another at various points (especially whenever Keanu launches into his particular type of dude-speak Shakespeare). It’s an intriguing battle that is waged throughout the film, artifice and intimacy pushed up against one another, wrestling for control of the film’s ultimate aesthetic. As a result, it can feel like several different films all at once, even within the very same scene.
So, while the film is certainly an inordinately sad one at times—especially when centering around Mike’s bone-deep loneliness and perpetual vulnerability, or his endless longing for a home he likely never knew to begin with—it’s also filled with a great many other things: comic vignettes, ill-advised heist schemes, gorgeous time-lapse photography, a soundtrack incorporating everything from Eddy Arnold to Madonna to The Pogues, and, famously, an extended re-working of parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV by way of Orson Welles’ little-seen Chimes of Midnight.
Somehow, though, the disjointed, stitched together feeling of the overall narrative actually works, largely due to Van Sant’s ingenious decision to filter the film almost entirely through a character who, by the very nature of his narcoleptic condition, experiences the world in just such a jumbled, confusing way. Using Mike’s narcolepsy as a framing device allows us to take in his world—and all its various people and adventures—in much the same way as he himself does: slightly off and out of sync, a series of almost random moments and events, falling asleep and waking up to brand new things which he (we) have to slowly acclimate to and learn to make sense of.
Time passes, because that’s what time does. I grew up, because that’s what people do. And somehow, My Own Private Idaho is now twenty-three years old; older, in fact, than River Phoenix ever was.
Time is a house crashing down on us all.
At thirteen, Idaho was a mysterious—and rather quickly banished—film in my life; I didn’t necessarily understand it, but I understood that it was something that I wanted to understand.
At twenty, I brought my own sense of loss and lostness to the film, and, not surprisingly, found those very same things reflected back to me. Watching it over and over again that year, it never failed to produce the same ache in me, the sense that I was watching myself be made sense of, not in the particulars of the plot or its characters, but in the expansive universality of that ancient, primal longing for home.
At thirty-five, I’m not really sure what I’m bringing to the film any more—and perhaps that’s why I’m not entirely sure how to sort out my feelings about it at the moment. I know that I can still feel echoes of the film’s original mystery, as well as the resonance of its longing and all that it’s meant to me over the years, but there’s also a detached (grown-up) distance from it now. I connect with it, still, but not with the same sense of urgency. Maybe I’ve just come to accept that some aches will always be there—that loneliness and loss are part and parcel of the human condition, things to be wrestled with but never solved—and I no longer need (or expect) a resolution to Mike’s journey, or Scott’s, or anyone else’s. Roads take us places but they also bring us back. I still long for the past—or at least my best memories of it—but I’ve managed to build myself a home, too, and it is enough.