My Own Private Idaho

When Gus Van Sant started giving me breaks to time-lapse photography of clouds over the countryside to indicate breaks in the mental landscape of his narcoleptic protagonist, which occurs in the very first few minutes, I realized I had missed an important piece of information about My Own Private Idaho: that it was avant-garde. I knew it was a key entry in queer cinema, but films earn that designation for showing queer lives, not for necessarily making the bold ass artistic choices frequently beloved of the queer community. But when they do, we get things like a shot of an old wooden barn being dropped from a height and smashing into boards on an empty blacktop road to indicate a character’s orgasm, and that’s only the second scene!

That was also, as it turns out, not the only important piece of information I had missed before watching this. I know that at one point in my life I had stumbled over the detail that My Own Private Idaho was loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I say stumbled over because I did not pick up this information and carry it along with me from that moment. Instead, a combination of realization & recollection broke over me like a splendid sunrise somewhere around the point Bob appeared, and I at last put it together that Keanu Reeves wasn’t being given odd little monologues just as part of the art, but because Keanu Reeves was specifically playing rent boy Prince Hal, quasi Shakespeare-sounding-like dialogue with his homeless Falstaff and all. I WAS GONE.

Not that I wasn’t already gone for this movie, I was gone for it even before the cut to Scott holding sleeping Mike in his arms like an alt Portland Pietà on the steps of the elk sculpture downtown, though I can tell you that would have done it.

I was gone for My Own Private Idaho because it was eccentric but emotionally earnest, and 1991 enough for things like living skin mag covers to land more experimental than twee. Something of a low-fi Velvet Goldmine but about street hustlers in the Pacific Northwest. And even at its greatest aesthetic extremes, there’s always something raw and vulnerable in those central two performances, particularly in what lovely, lost River Phoenix is doing in his portrayal of someone who is narcoleptic but also tired, the spit-shined performance he sometimes drags on for his trade never effectively covering the scuffs and bruises of his Richard Siken longing. But there is also something tender and open at the heart of Keanu Reeves’s luminous beauty, even when he’s being a bastard—it’s the quality that makes him such a good casting for Prince Hal. There’s a shared sincerity in the souls of these two young actors, a certain honesty that helps lend the whole project its scuzzy sweetness, while that tragedian backing lets us feel our sadness as part of a tradition old and grand and classical, which is kind, really.

Listen, is it flawless, does everything always work? Probably not! And I was at first going to leave half a star of room out of a sense that maybe I should, [gentle voice] go easy.. But then I remembered the way Van Sant did the sex scenes in those cuts of breathing tableaus and about had an artistic heart attack all over again, SO:

★★★★★

Dogtooth

I’ve got this new thought I’m rolling around regarding Yorgos Lanthimos movies. Having seen four now, I think you can view each of them as him trying on different boundaries for the scope of his Weird World.

In Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας, 2009), the weird world is precisely and clearly delineated by the fence bordering the property that the family lives on. What defines this world is an arcane and expanding set of rules and explanations for reality that the parents have forced upon their cloistered children, who know nothing else. We meet a few people from outside this family, and they seem a bit Yorgos-y (the deadpan), but they very clearly do not live in the same false reality that the children do, so they are still absolutely outwith the Weird World.

In The Lobster (2015), the weird world seems to be the entire world—scope expansion maximum. What defines this world is that those who remain single for too long are sent to a center with a bunch of other single people to try to find a partner, and if they fail, they are turned into an animal. There’s the hunting part too, but that could be considered part of the rules of the smaller, subset world of The Hotel. And we do meet people from outside that facility, in a very plot-relevant way! But, notably, they still exist within the larger weird reality with the animals thing.

In The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), the weird world is…a social circle? The few people we see outside of the family and their friends seem relatively regular (for Lanthimos). Interestingly, this time we don’t start out with any specific rules that define things, however, Barry Keoghan’s character begins to impose rules of sorts on the family as the story progresses. Why and how any of them have gotten themselves into this weird world is perfectly unclear though and honestly I think that makes this one more excitingly surreal than any of the other Yorgos Lanthimoses on this list, and perhaps relatedly, it’s my favorite of the Big Yorgos ones I’ve seen (where he is both writer and director).

In The Favourite (2018, and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara this time), the weird world is lighter than the others, and is the British aristocracy. This is fun. We meet a few people outside the noble class and again, they’re weird (no one in a Lanthimos is not!), but they’re weird in a way distinct from the way the court is. This is because, and again this is so fun: because courts have rules! This is the Yorgos Weird World applied to an existing weird world structure in our own reality, and it goes really well and I think that’s a big part of why everyone liked this one so much. The Favourite was a bit different than his others, in several fundamental ways, but it was a really fine marriage and that was certainly part of what I found so keenly enjoyable about it.

Anyhow, Dogtooth. The strictest of the lot, yes I’d say even more than the one where single people are turned into animals. And the most sadistic, yes I’d say even more than the one where a boy is terrorizing a family. And I think it’s all because of the parents’ ability to cross the boundaries of this Weird World. Turns out that is the most disturbing concept Yorgos Lanthimos has presented me with yet.

★★★½

Bill & Teds

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) was released into this world the same year I was. I grew up on it playing on basic cable in the ‘90s, and these days actually own it on DVD, a gift from a friend at some point in high school. I love Bill & Ted. And so I was a little nervous to rewatch it this year to be honest, now as an adult with a Letterboxd, which tells me it has been eight whole years since I last saw it.

But you may have caught that tense: I LOVE Bill & Ted. Presently! Still & always. In fact I might even love Excellent Adventure more now. Because watching it as an adult (..with a Letterboxd) in 2020, this time I really noticed just how unusually sweet this movie is, in a year where I have perhaps been more primed than ever to be grateful for kindness.

If you have never seen Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the premise is ornate but the stakes very simple: Bill Preston and Ted Logan are best friends, seniors (I think) in high school in San Dimas, California, in the late 1980s. And for some reason, their terrible two-person garage band Wyld Stallyns is destined to someday unite the planets and bring about universal harmony. The problem though, and the time-travel paradox engine that powers the story, is that our affable dim-bulbs are currently failing their history class, and if they don’t get an A on their final presentation, Ted’s dad is going to send him off to an Alaskan military school (this joke destroyed me this time around), breaking up Bill & Ted, the band, and ALSO the existence of this most excellent future. So the future sends a representative named Rufus (comedian George Carlin, easily the biggest name in the cast at the time) back to the late 1980s in a magical time-traveling phone booth, and the boys proceed to use this technology to travel throughout history gathering up notable figures in an effort to craft the best history presentation ever.

The DNA of this plot actually seems to bear some genetic sequences in common with the original Star Trek series, now that I think about it: completely outrageous circumstances, but with this innately schoolish bent. 

The result is a goofily absurdist, laid-back adventure comedy that for some reason they kept a pure PG. Although they have what would seem to be an unmistakable stoner energy, Bill & Ted are never remotely alluded to partake in either drugs or alcohol, and beyond their cheery loyalty to the number ’69’ and an adolescent confusion over Bill’s hot young stepmom, their only love interests are a pair of chaste medieval princesses whom they readily fall to trying to woo in respectful knightly fashion, mostly through acts of bravery and reciting poetry. In fact, their unique vocal patter often gives them the impression of already being figures somehow unstuck in time, speaking in an parlance that combines irregular California surfer dude speak with a vocabulary and sentence structure that often veers oddly archaic, to entertainingly poetic effect. “Billy, you are adapting to the oddity of time travel with the greatest of ease!” they’ll compliment their first historical companion Billy the Kid, whom they politely address as “Mr. the Kid” upon first meeting him. It all creates a movie that is endlessly quotable.

And that’s aided of course by the indelible performances of the young leads, 22- and 23-year-old Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, just two fresh-faced and puppyish children of God, my Doofuses of Light. They are so dumb and so sweet, containing not an ounce of smarts or malice in their souls. They never fight, they care about each other deeply, and they’re always looking out for those around them, consistently tending to the well-being of the “personages of historical significance” they pick up on their travels. They’re part of the branch of the himbo family tree that would produce Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington farther down the line, with Keanu’s gift of ’80s hair absolutely. Bill & Ted are the earnest, unironic heart of their earnest, unironic catchphrase, Be Excellent To Each Other, and Party On Dudes!

The subsequent sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), was coincidentally released the same year my sister was born this time, but I guess it must have not gotten the same amount of play on cable in my childhood, because I had only seen it once before this year and didn’t remember much of it. Bogus Journey was going to be my test actually, of whether my affection for Excellent Adventure was just because of how long I’d already loved it. Unfortunately though that test would prove INCONCLUSIVE, because I don’t like Bogus Journey much on its own merits! And that is because, quite simply, it’s meaner than Excellent Adventure. More of the humor comes from confrontation this time, because this one introduces forces of actual malevolence to battle (something the first film actually entirely lacks). Bogus Journey also greatly ups the stakes, as instead of just trying to pass a class, Bill & Ted are now literally fighting for their lives—and again, by extension, the entire future—after being killed by evil robot versions of themselves early on and subsequently going on a (bogus) journey through Heaven and Hell.

The bright spot though has got to be William Sadler playing a parody of Ingmar Bergman’s Death from The Seventh Seal, a joke even more wackily esoteric than the first movie setting Napoleon Bonaparte loose in a waterpark called Waterloo. And, again quite like what happens with Napoleon, the initial concept deepens into actual character development, which is rewarding.

Now, nearly 30 years later, a third film resolves this set into a trilogy. Entitled Bill & Ted Face the Music (a good title), our titular duo are now middle-aged dads, and finally confronting the driving conceit of all of this: that these cosmic Fools who aren’t even that good of musicians are supposedly going to save the universe with their music. Fundamentally, I don’t think this series was ever supposed to actually address this, and just leave it as the charmingly silly and actually wonderfully hopeful joke of Rufus turning into the camera as they jam at the end of Excellent Adventure, and apologetically assuring us: “They do get better.”

For this reason I can never wholly approve of Bogus Journey, which tries to half address this, or Face the Music, which directly takes it on. That said, the solution that Face the Music comes up with is pretty cute and almost a little elegant in how it finds an answer through redefining the parameters of what we now learn was a (self-fulfilling? well aren’t they all) prophecy. And this film’s plot, which sees Bill and Ted encountering progressively older and messier versions of themselves as they try to hunt down the song that’s going to change the world, also allows for something ALMOST deep about each of their relationships to their selves, which I was not expecting from this franchise. However, the core of Bill & Ted was always their relationship with each other, and Face the Music knows that well.

I feel like I need to especially single out Alex Winter, who was coming back from a retirement from acting here, and feels like he never stopped playing Bill in the interim. He so completely recalls his younger performance as Bill S. Preston that I wonder if his ebullience as Bill is part of what makes Keanu Reeves actually feel almost a little stiff playing Ted again. That could also possibly be due just to physical stiffness from age, because the actor playing his daughter Billie (yes they named their babies after each other, my heart) does such a phenomenal young Keanu homage in this, really showcasing how much of the Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan energy is this low-tempo springiness of movement.

The addition of the adorable Billie & Thea was definitely a highlight for me, as was seeing Kristen Schaal (!) as Rufus’s daughter. Face the Music definitely attempts to be somewhat of a corrective of the previous two movies with regard to actually having female characters, even though it does kind of make the continued non-characters of their princess wives stand out more than you’d like. There was probably a whole doubling down here on the bigger shenanigans and stakes direction that the second film started (why do franchises always think they have to continually up the stakes! smaller stakes are more emotionally engaging, folks), and the joke concepts were not infrequently a bit more Bogus Journey than Excellent Adventure, which would not be my preference, but did I tear up at the very sincere musical climax? Oh you bet. And at one point in Hell when Bill and Ted are about to head over to try to make amends with their disgruntled former bandmate Death, one of their kids reminds them, “Be sweet!”, and that right there really is what I love best about Bill & Ted.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure★★★★½
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey★★
Bill & Ted Face the Music★★★