rom the first few minutes, My Own Private Idaho flaunts its own individuality - one that’s outside the familiar sensibilities of movieland New York or Los Angeles. As a country road takes on the visual characteristics of a smiling face, River Phoenix’s dishevelled drifter suddenly falls into an inexplicable slumber, his narcoleptic stupor swiftly intercut by home movie images of a mother and child, and nature footage of salmon jumping upstream. When he wakes up he’s in a hotel room being given a blow- job by a particularly unprepossessing customer, the point of orgasm punctuated by another hallucinatory flash of ajwooden house falling from the sky. ‘There’s a lot of stylistic things I did without ever having the notion I’d be playing to a wide general audience,’ reckons the director, and to be sure, mainstream entertainment it ain’t. Like David Lynch before him, the director takes from both the storehouse of Americana and a panoply of arty European ‘isms’ to create a very personal vision of mixed-up youth. Following the fortunes of River Phoenix’s street hustler, Mike, and Keanu Reeves as the mayor’s slumming son, Scott, My Own Private Idaho positively trades in the unexpected. Gay porn mag covers come to life; Warhol superstar Udo Kier (Flesh For Frankenstein) pops up as a German motor parts salesman and does a camp cabaret number before indulging in a tasteful homo-troilist tableau with our two young protagonists; while the arrival of sometime movie director (Winter Kills) William Richert’s hobo maverick Bob Pigeon threatens to turn the whole thing into a verse-speaking sleazo re-run of Shakespeare’s Henry IV— or more accurately, Orson Welles’s adaptation in Chimes At Midnight— as the stout junkie tramp plays Falstaff to Keanu’s Prince Hal. Far flung from the world of Bill & Ted or Stand By Me it may be, but Van Sant had surprisingly little difficulty in persuading both young stars to take up the challenge of playing against type to such a degree. ‘Keanu had told his agent he wanted to do a smaller type of film and was very committed

in a Hollywood kind of way,’ explains Van Sant. ‘The main problem for him was that he usually needs about a month to really get into a character and he only had a week between coming off Point Break and starting work on this one. With River too once we

, finally got to him he makes his own

decisions, and this was something that he wanted to do because he’d never done anything like it before. On set they really seemed to understand the material because

‘What I was really interested in was to look at the relationship that a boy might have with an older man who’s a kind at surrogate lather. Somebody who doesn’t have a dad, but needs one so badly they go to bed with men.’

there really weren’t too many puzzled questions or anything.‘

Of the two main performers, Reeves shows some obvious discomfort with the Shakespearian verse, but Van Sant himself has nothing but admiration for River Phoenix’s immeasurable contribution to the movie as a whole. ‘As it was written, River’s character really had no sexual identity because sex was his business,’ explains the director. ‘The idea that Mike was attracted to Scott came from River. The moment that happens between them by the campfire I had originally intended to just be this bored fumble, but when River came on board, he felt it was his key scene in the movie. He said, “I think I’m in love with Scott” which brought in this element that he was gay. Scott wasn’t, and so he was denied. That was a new thing and it took us in other directions.

‘I wouldn’t say the film was actually about being gay, but it’s definitely ingrained in there. The word ‘Idaho’ starts with the letters ‘I D’; that’s like ‘id’ or ‘identification’ and the whole movie I guess is a meditation on identity. Hidden identity maybe. Things that you didn’t know you were, emotions that you didn‘t know you had. What I was really interested in was to

look at the relationship that a boy might have with an older man who’s a kind of surrogate father. Somebody who doesn’t have a dad, but needs one so badly they go to bed with men. The sexuality is not what they’re after, they just want the attention. You find this kind of thing happening out on the streets. It’s looking for love. There’s an emotional thing happening, and also they make money.’

Like his earlier film Drugstore Cowboy with its band of rampaging junkies, Van Sant’s follow-up again creates an alternative family grouping from its gaggle of marginalised street people. Drawing the viewer in, River Phoenix’s highly sympathetic performance describes the pain of looking for a place called home when family, friends and the world around you seem to be swiftly disintegrating in a kind of general entropic drift, and Van Sant manages to make the film’s collection of bizarre components hold together around this central theme. With America’s post-Reagan polarisation of haves and have-nots placed in specific comparison to the Shakespearian social make-up of lofty nobles and rude mechanicals, even Mike’s eccentric nervous affliction can be read as an understandable response to a problematic exrstence.

‘The real-life narcoleptics we looked at during our research couldn’t have any kind of emotional feeling or they’d fall asleep. It’s an acquired syndrome which has to do with some kind of shock that the neurological system’s been through. The body just starts to shut down when it’s faced with an emotion it can’t deal with, whether it’s a memory, fear, sorrow, laughter or even an orgasm. Mike’s condition is a kind of living metaphor for someone trying to protect themselves from all the stuff around them. It’s another world, an alter-reality you can use to speak to the more everyday place where the rest of us live.’

My Own Private Idaho opens at the Cameo, Edinburgh, on Friday I7April and at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 19 April.

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The List 10— 23 April 199213