Monday, April 12, 2010

1991: My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)

1991: My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)
God I miss Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy, Brad Renfro, and especially River Phoenix.  All young actors with an incredible amount of talent that the American cinema will never quite replace.  Phoenix had an elemental presence on screen.  He was wise, full of life, and had a weight of vulnerability about him that I hadn't seen since Clift or Dean. I always greatly enjoyed his work and never any more than in this early Van Sant film.  

I think I'm on the somewhat unpopular side when it comes to Van Sant. Although I greatly admire his later, more experimental work (Elephant, Gerry, etc), I definitely prefer some of his other films.  I guess I like it when he takes himself a little less seriously, like he does here.

Idaho is beautifully shot, a fun concoction of about every genre, and full of Van Sant's playful, stylistic flair.  It's breezy with a good deal of heart and still feels fresh, vital, and tonally quite unique.  Van Sant's versatility continues to fascinate, one of the most interesting directors out there who seems to be able to do most anything.  About as bold and liberated as they come, I look forward to seeing where he goes next.  

Other contenders for 1991: I still have some things to see from this year.  These include:  David Mamet's Homicide, Ken Loach's Riff Raff, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, Akira Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August, Jacques Rivette's La belle noiseuse, Hal Hartley's Theory of Achievement, Ambition, and Surviving Desire, Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, Stanley Kwan's Actress, Arnaud Desplechin's La Vie Des Morts, Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, Bruce Beresford's Black Robe, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's Beauty and the Beast, Cedric Kahn's Bar des rails, Philippe Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare, Martha Coolidge's Rambling Rose, and Jon Avnet's Fried Green Tomatoes.  At some point, I'll need to revisit Oliver Stone's JFK.  It's been too long since I've seen it to know where it'd place on this list.  But from this year, I really like The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink and Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs.  I love Abbas Kiarostami's And Life Goes On.  And my closest runner-up is Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh.

1/10/11 I watched Richard Linklater's Slacker.  Original, courageous, and often formally fairly daring.  But it is "slack", and almost always resolutely un-cinematic.  Linklater has a way with casting and actors though, and given its context, it's quite the debut.  

1/30/11 I watched David Mamet's Homicide.  There are people who are serious fans of Mamet's oblique approach to language and filmmaking, but I can't say I'm really one of them.  Mantegna turns in a strong performance, but much of the rest of the cast feels a bit uninspired.

9/15/11 I watched Jacques Rivette's La belle noiseuse.  Heady and complex, Rivette's work continues to elude me a little.  There are many interesting ideas at work around the artist life, but Rivette's uncompromising and lengthy methods leave me a little lukewarm.  

10/25/18 I watched Frederick Wiseman's Aspen.  Another fascinating doc by Wiseman that is most remarkable in Wiseman's effort to capture as many sides as he possibly can of the affluent Colorado mountain community.

6/15/19 I watched Claire Denis' Keep It for Yourself.  It is a wonderful early work by Denis that shows off her incredible eye, ear, and like Jarmusch, incredible feel for the outsider.  It is essential Denis that deserves to be seen and talked about.  

4/2/20 I finally watched Stanley Kwan's Actress.  It is a film I have been wanting to see for more than twenty years.  Usually with that type of expectation comes disappointment but not this time.  Aside from being absolutely gorgeous - in its cinematography, set design and wardrobe - it is utterly unique as a biopic.  By consistently merging interviews with people that knew Ruan and actual foootage of her with fictional shots and scenes, Kwan is able to create a character we know in deeper and different ways than cinema has previously allowed.  A film that is a key precursor to In the Mood for Love and one that warmly invites us to dig deeper into China's cinema of the past.

6/29/20 I watched Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.  It is a deep and highly stylized meditation on race.  It is not always easy to follow but the depth of feeling is mostly affecting.
1/18/22 I watched Andre S Labarthe's The Scorsese Machine.  Nothing incredibly new or memorable here with the exception of when Scorsese is asked to explain what his seventies films were trying to accomplish with respect to cinema's past.  
5/20/22 I watched Arnaud Desplechin's La vie des morts.  It's a film I have been wanting to see for more than 25 years that did not disappoint when I finally was able to track it down.  Before even making his first feature, Desplechin demonstrates his very special ability working with an ensemble of some of France's greatest actors.  And already so much of Desplechin's style is there - the edginess of the editing, the natural and almost laconic warmth and intimacy of the moments and his comfort in depicting the youth, particularly many of the females of his generation.
7/16/22 I watched Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times.  Aside from a couple of moving scenes, when Lennon breaks out in dance for one, I never was that absorbed in the film or filmmaking.
1/14/24 I watched Agnes Varda's Jacquot de Nantes.  Extremely insightful for fans of Demy but you have to be very curious and okay with Varda's usual whimsy.


  1. I still think that Van Sant's Portland trilogy (MALA NOCHE, DRUGSTORE COWBOY & IDAHO) are the best things he's ever done. But IDAHO is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. The film has a fantastic, almost Jack Kerouac-ian vibe at times and features a devastating performance by River Phoenix. And Van Sant even got a decent performance out of Keanu Reeves - no easy feat!

    I also like how Van Sant wove Shakespeare into the film with Bob playing the Falstaff-type character. Also, the use of music was excellent and really enhanced the imagery... speaking of which, fantastic cinematography that managed to build on the brilliantly shot DRUGSTORE COWBOY done previously. This would probably be my fave of this year as well, just edging out JFK.

  2. "Idaho is beautifully shot, a fun concoction of about every genre, and full of Van Sant's playful, stylistic flair. It's breezy with a good deal of heart and still feels fresh, vital, and tonally quite unique."

    Absolutely Jeffrey, that's a great validation there, and I also love Van Sant with ELEPHANT as my personal favorite. And I saw the Pialat film a month after I submitted the annual list at Dave's site, and agree it's a masterpiece.

    My Own #1 Film of 1991:

    La Belle Noiseuse (Rivette; France)


    Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale; USA)
    Van Gogh (Pialat)
    Prospero's Books (Greenaway; USA)
    Fried Green Tomatoes (Avnet; USA)
    Black Robe (Beresford; Canada)
    Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou; China)
    Man in the Moon (Mulligan; USA)
    JFK (Stone; USA)
    My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant; USA)
    The Silence of the Lambs (Demme; USA)
    Europa Europa (Holland; France/W. Germany)
    A Brighter Summer Day (Yang; Taiwan)
    Un Coeur en Hiver (Saudet; France)

  3. JD, wow, extremely well put! And so glad to hear some other love for this one. It's near and dear to me, as well.

    I love what you say here:

    "But IDAHO is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. The film has a fantastic, almost Jack Kerouac-ian vibe at times and features a devastating performance by River Phoenix."

    Thanks, JD. Great addition to this post!

  4. Sam, thanks so much for the great words! I love hearing that you're also a fan of the Pialat. It might very well be my favorite narrative film ever, in terms of capturing the life of an artist. It's a really powerful watch for me.

    Always great having your perspective. Thanks, Sam!

  5. Jeffrey, a nicely put tribute to Phoenix. I still need to see MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO. My own pick for this year is JFK, a complex elaborate mystery comparable to THE BIG SLEEP in its intricacies. Not that I believe the theories expounded the film just an emotional rollercoaster ride.

    #1 JFK

    Best of the rest

    Barton Fink
    Ramblin’ Rose
    Cape Fear
    The Commitments
    Dead Again

  6. No question about it, I have to go with Oliver Stone's JFK. It's mishmash of facts, rumors, theories, etc. results in a sprawling, paranoid masterpiece. Here is how I summed up my feelings in my own entry from JFK:

    "This is a divisive film and one that can split otherwise likeminded movie fans. Those likely to be offended by filmmakers taking liberties with facts and massaging events are likely to seriously be turned off by it. In the end, I’ll echo what Roger Ebert said in his assessment of this masterpiece: “Fact belongs in print, films are about emotion.” In JFK, Stone creates an emotional, stirring political thriller that fascinates me to this day after countless viewings. This is one the films that could, depending on when you ask me, be cited as my all-time favorite film. And yet, I still don’t believe most of the theories proposed by it. Strange, isn’t it?"

  7. John, I definitely need to see JFK again!

    From your list, I also still need to see DEAD AGAIN. I need to revisit THE COMMITMENTS, and I like BUGSY although a little less than the ones I mentioned.

    Thanks so much for the kind words, John. Always great having you here!

  8. Dave, fantastic post on JFK! I haven't seen it since it first came out. I saw it in the theater in '91 and definitely owe it a new look. I'm excited to see it again.

    Thanks, Dave. Always great to have your perspective here!