SPOILER ALERT: This blog deals with the film My Own Private Idaho. If you haven’t seen it, please be aware there are spoilers here. If you're interested in finding the movie locations mentioned in this blog, I've provided links to the Google maps / GPS coordinates for every site possible in the text below.
Some recent excursions to Portland have me thinking about the film I most closely associate with the city, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. I was twenty-four when the film came out, just a few years older than its star River Phoenix, and living in a large city with a large homeless population of which I knew nothing. It would be another decade before, as a foster and adoptive parent, I began working with kids who had experiences similar to those depicted in the film — drugs, missing parents, sexual exploitation, hopelessness. A decade after that, I would encounter the issue of homeless youth head on when my oldest adopted son, dealing with his own drug and mental health issues, became a chronic runaway and was living on the streets by age sixteen.
So I guess the film came to resonate with me more as I aged and my sympathies grew for the disfranchised population it depicted.
It's fair to say that Idaho is an acquired taste and it took me several viewings to appreciate it fully. At first blush, it was so bizarre, disturbing and maybe even a little pretentious that it simultaneously repelled and fascinated me. Yet I kept coming back for more and today I proudly own the Criterion Collection edition DVD, which is probably the best version of the film you can get for home viewing until someone has the sense to put it on Blu Ray.
After my most recent viewing, I set out to discover the world depicted in the film — if it even existed anymore. The vast majority of film locations occur within Portland’s downtown area, boxed in by Interstate 405 on the west, the Willamette River on the east, Burnside Street on the north and Portland State University on the south. But finding Idaho's iconic locations was challenging because the Portland which exists today seems so completely different from the one depicted in the film nearly a quarter of a century ago. And as I walked the streets, I had to wonder if Idaho's Portland ever really existed outside of Van Sant’s imagination?
In a 2011 article from Portland Monthly Magazine entitled The Lost World of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, the director seems to confirm that his Portland was at least partially a fictional construct:
Van Sant himself… says that even at the time, Idaho was intended as an ode to the past. “It was more about the ’70s than the ’80s or early ’90s,” he says. Cobbled together from architecture and urban legend, the film’s Portland is a distorted landscape infused with uncanny touches. The heroes have free rein of boarded-up flats: an amalgamation of the Lotus Card Room, the Widmer brewery on Interstate, and the then-derelict Governor Hotel.
Because Van Sant craftily combined different interiors and exteriors into an idealized location or physically altered the environment outright, when I did find the right spot it was often surprising. The best example is when I stumbled upon the Thompson Elk Fountain, perhaps the most iconic image of Portland because it’s also the first image we see of the city. The scene opens on trees in autumn color, then slowly pans down over the statue of a waif-like figure sitting astride a bull elk. At the base of the statue is a plaque reading THE COMING OF THE WHITE MAN and on the steps in front of it is Keanu Reeves holding an unconscious River Phoenix in his lap. I knew from reading about the film that both the waif-like figure and the plaque were added by Van Sant, but what surprised me was the fountain’s actual location. Because the scene was shot in such extreme closeup, I always thought the actors were alone in a vast and tranquil city park. In fact, the statue sits in the middle of Main Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues, with traffic zipping passed it on both sides. The sprawling woodland I had imagined is actually the tiny Lownsdale Square to the north.
I was surprised again when I found
In total I spent about two hours wandering Portland’s downtown area. I don’t know if it taught me anything new about the film, but after four years of living in a small community it did remind me how big cities are often filled with contrasts. The poor still eek out a living alongside the rich. The sick still manage to survive a few more days in the shadow of the healthy. Hope and hopelessness are still at constant odds.
Wherever, whatever, have a nice day.
Related feature: More filming locations uncovered in Wandering Through Idaho, Part 2.