History Podcasts

'My Own Private Idaho” premieres in theaters

'My Own Private Idaho” premieres in theaters

On September 27, 1991, My Own Private Idaho, an independent film written and directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, premieres at the New York Film Festival. The movie told the story of two young male hustlers, one of whom (Phoenix) is a hapless narcoleptic searching for the mother who abandoned him, and the other of whom (Reeves) comes from a wealthy family (the character was inspired, in part, by Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV). The pair meets in Portland, Oregon, and later travels to Idaho and Italy. My Own Private Idaho–the title reportedly came from a song by the rock band the B-52s–was nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards and won for Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead (Phoenix) and Best Film Music.

Gus Van Sant, who was born on July 24, 1952, received a strong critical reception for his first film, 1985’s Mala Noche, about a romance between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. The writer-director became a star in the indie film world with 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy, about four Portland junkies (led by a character played by Matt Dillon) who rob pharmacies to feed their addictions. Van Sant’s first Hollywood project was the black comedy To Die For (1995), which starred Nicole Kidman as a weather girl who convinces her teenage lover (played by Joaquin Phoenix, River’s younger brother) to murder her husband, played by Dillon. Van Sant achieved major mainstream success when he directed 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which earned nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Director and Best Picture) and won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams. Van Sant’s directorial credits also include a 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho; 2000’s Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery; Elephant (2003), about 1999’s Columbine High School massacre; Last Days (2005), about the late musician Kurt Cobain; Milk (2008), about San Fransisco politician Harvey Milk; and Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (2018), about a recently paralyzed cartoonist (played by Joaquin Phoenix).

River Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970, and began his professional acting career as a teenager. His early movie credits included Stand by Me (1986), Little Nikita (1988) and Running on Empty (1988), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Phoenix went on to appear in such films as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989); I Love You to Death (1990), which co-starred Keanu Reeves; Dogfight (1991) and The Thing Called Love (1993). On October 31, 1993, Phoenix, considered one of the most promising actors of his generation, died of a drug overdose at the age of 23 outside a Hollywood club called The Viper Room. Phoenix’s younger brother is the Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix, whose movie credits include Gladiator (2000), Walk the Line (2005), The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), You Were Never Really Here (2017) and Joker (2019).

Reeves, born on September 2, 1964, first rose to fame with the 1989 comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He went on to star in a long list of movies, including the 1994 blockbuster Speed, with Sandra Bullock, the mega-hit 1999 sci-fi thriller The Matrix and its two sequels, and the action-thriller movie John Wick and its two sequels.


Your Own Private Idaho

On a warm summer afternoon on Lake Pend Oreille, a young guy named Justin from the Seasons condominium development in Sandpoint fired up a leather-appointed Chris Craft, offered my wife and me cold beers and sodas, and bombed us straight down the dragon-shaped lake for a solid hour, from the civilized northern end to the wild and treacherous south side.

Forty-three miles long, with 111 miles of coastline, Lake Pend Oreille (pond-uh- RAY ) in Idaho’s panhandle is a geological wonder, a huge gash scooped out when the ice dams of prehistoric Lake Missoula broke and flooded from here to the ocean. The northern end of the lake is populated by towns, lakefront mansions, and resorts the south is harsh and barren. The water is 1,172 feet deep, making it the fifth-deepest lake in the United States. And there are fascinating, odd people and outrageous pieces of history at every bend in the shoreline.

Flying down the lake in the Chris Craft we passed a remote lakeside compound, its roofs studded with satellite dishes. Justin explained that it’s the home of Dr. Forrest Byrd, who invented the respirator, has a private airstrip for his planes and helicopters, and does side work for the Defense Department from here.

A few miles farther down the lake we approached the town of Bayview, home in the 1920s to the unfortunately named Swastika Hotel, affiliated with the Swastika Mining Company up-lake. Business got bad in the ’30s when the Third Reich adopted the swastika as its logo. The hotel went out of business and then burned to the ground.

Main Street, U.S.A Sandpoint always seems to be vying for “Greatest Town in America.”

Justin slowed down at a platform offshore: The only U.S. Navy submarine research center located in a lake. Below our boat was a field of instruments Navy engineers use to test the acoustic properties of propellers. Were we to fall off the Chris Craft and plummet into the 39-degree depths, we would encounter, 600 feet below the surface, a football-field-sized ring of acoustic panels. The area is unrestricted and open to the public, and it is not uncommon for fishermen hunting for trophy-sized kamloops trout or mackinaw to spot the Cutthroat, the Navy’s 111-foot-long replica of a Virginia-class submarine and the largest unmanned watercraft in the world.

But I’ll take civilization over deepwater military toys. And Sandpoint, population 6,835, on the northwest corner of the lake and accessible only via a two-mile bridge over the Pend Oreille River, is civilized—the kind of place that’s always vying for "Greatest Town in America" consideration, with its Fourth of July parade (which includes—of course—a precision-tractor-driving contest), a downtown core of weathered brick and clapboard storefronts, and restaurants like the Pie Hut, which serves over a dozen kinds of homemade pie (the huckleberry will change your life). Justin’s outfit, the Seasons at Sandpoint Resort, deals in prime real estate, selling and renting condos with exquisite views of the cerulean lake. City Beach is a public park on the lake with broad green playfields, sandy beaches, lifeguards, and a replica of the Statue of Liberty at the end of a public dock. And at the Hoot Owl Café, locals and visitors mingle over big breakfast plates served by a big-haired waitress named Wanda who bellows things like, "I’ve only got two hands, Sweetie!"

I like that in a town. I also like that the lake was clean and warm enough for my family to jump into every morning on the dock outside our rental cabin—at Sleep’s Cabins in the little hamlet of Sagle—and that it has produced world-record fish, which we hunted one morning with Diamond Ed Dixon, who leads fishing charter tours on a 32-foot Carver boat.

We didn’t catch anything (we were there in July and the best fishing is in October), but Diamond Ed showed us lots of cool places and kept up a nonstop patter of stories. Like the one about Berlin industrialist Klaus Groenke, who has a sprawling estate on the corner of the Hope Peninsula, across the lake from Sandpoint. Groenke bought 150 acres here in 1984 and built a proper compound. A slab of the Berlin Wall marks the entrance to his property and is a popular attraction for visitors.

Empire of the spud The Lake Pend Oreille region includes 111 miles of shoreline, a handful of small towns, and infinite opportunities for discovery.

From the boat, we could see Groenke’s collection of outdoor sculptures by Ed Kienholz, another larger-than-life figure. During the 1980s and early ’90s, the 300-plus-pound Kienholz split his time between Berlin and the peninsula, creating sculptures and collages that made their way into the collections of modern art museums around the world. Legend has it that when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994 after lunch at the Hope Floating Restaurant, his wife Nancy wedged him into the front seat of a 1940 Packard coupe with a bottle of 1931 chianti beside him, a dollar and a deck of cards in his pocket, and rolled the whole thing into a tomb in nearby Clark Fork.

In its heyday the Groenke estate received visits from the likes of President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty, Groenke’s pal Henry Kissinger, and a string of foreign dignitaries. And with the addition of the Kienholz sculptures, the estate has become a favorite target for conspiracy theorists, including one Dr. Leonard Horowitz, a local author whose books include Death in the Air: Globalism, Terrorism & Toxic Warfare and the ever-popular Emerging Viruses: AIDS & Ebola—Nature, Accident or Intentional? In one treatise on energy prices and the New World Order, Dr. Horowitz suggested that the Kienholz sculptures on the Groenke property were perfectly triangulated with the submarine base in Bayview and other structures, and have been "curiously associated with bizarre lightning events and stupefied animal behavior."

But the only stupefied animals I saw in Sandpoint were my wife and me after several pitchers of beer at the wonderful pizzeria in Hope that was converted from an old icehouse by a group of former hippies led by a character from New Jersey who goes by the name Little Bear. The pizza was fresh and crispy and delicious, the beer was cold, and live folk music was played on an upstairs porch that has the best lake views in town.

It was enough to make me think I should erect my own private compound on the shores of Pend Oreille. I’d spend the rest of my summers flying down the lake in a Chris Craft and discovering more quirks of the lake. And then there’s huckleberry pie, lots of huckleberry pie to eat, yet so little time. I’ve only got two hands, Sweetie.


Movie theaters piss me off

My wonderful girlfriend received some free movie tickets to go see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, so we and her coworkers went to see the premiere.

Honestly, the movie itself wasn't so bad. Solid 7 out of 10, I'd say.

But my problem isn't with the movie itself. it was with the event as a whole.

Being a premiere, it was packed. We were toward the front of the line, so the crowding wasn't so bad. But before the premieres started, the theater manager had to come in, announce "saving seats is not allowed" and went over the rules of the theater before she'd leave us alone. Best of all, it was done entirely via megaphone, about 6 feet from my face.

Next up were the previews. There are a few good summer flicks coming out, but some of the premiers bothered me.

First up was the movie-rendition of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. I kid you not. Watch the vid.

I used to play boxing robots when I was a kid. But not once did I say "hey, you know what? This would make a kickass movie!" Hugh Jackman, whatever they paid you for this, it wasn't enough.

Next was the token goofball comedy: Zookeeper.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop meets Dr. Doolittle in this zany comedy of a dimwitted, unattractive zookeeper trying to win a shallow supermodel's love. The sad thing is. people will pay to see this. A lot of people.

Ok, enough of the previews. The movie starts, and it's the normal Pirates style. Jack Sparrow has some zany misadventures, almost dies yet narrowly escapes, and then the true adventure can start. Dun dun dun.

Yes folks, there's a baby in the theater. And no, mommy isn't leaving with the baby. she'd miss the movie!! Instead, she tries to shoosh him for a good 5 minutes before finally giving up, and exiting the theater.

Yep. One in the back, one in the front. Luckily this mommy got the hint faster.

Lucky for her, too. If she were any closer, or took any longer, I would have hucked a gummy worm at her. I mean, who brings a baby to a loud PG-13 movie theater on opening day? Either find a babysitter or come another time. Disrupting a crowd of 250+ because of your own selfishness is just plain rude.

The rest of the movie played on, the ending was predictable, humorous, and left enough open for yet another sequel. The movie itself was decent, but the environment kind of got on my nerves.

After the movie was done, the group wanted to stay together and hang for a bit. In the same mini-mall area is a self-serve Frogurt place a-la-pinkberry, but a little different. It's called Orange Leaf (see what they did there?) and it was packed.

Kinda slutty-ish prom teens. I don't remember the girls at my prom looking this trashy, and we were in the ghetto. Trashy was our middle name.

Nope, here in mormon-ville, this is the one time girls can look as trashy as they want and it's ok. Short poofy skirts were a-plenty. One girl's dress was so short I could tell you what type of underwear she had on. The bad thing is I could probably get arrested if I told you.

The favorite out of the slutty prom crew was this blonde in the red dress. Our group all decided that she did her hair in the 'messy look' so mommy and daddy wouldn't be able to tell if she rolled out of her date's back seat or not.

Or maybe she just did, and her hair was perfect about a half hour ago. who knows?

At least the night ended with some amusement. And a great idea. They have these little juice-filled boba balls you can add to your yogurt. I'm going to make an alcoholic version of it, open up an 'adult' pinkberry and just call it "Drunk-Ass Yogurt." Come on in, and eat your way to a good buzz!

What do you think? Would you like booze for dessert? Sounds tempting, doesn't it??

31 witty retorts:

I have no idea what a boba ball is, but filling them with alcohol sounds like an excellent idea to me.
Glad to hear you enjoyed the movie, was thinking of going sometime myself

Crying babies and movie theaters do not mix. People who text from their iphones in the middle of movies drive me crazy too!

Wow! Those prom chicks certainly were of the trashy variety. I'm guessing little miss red dress probably played a round of hide the salami on the way to the yogurt place. Very skanky!!

I'm totally down with your idea of an adult version of pinkberry. Brilliant!

I just realized I haven't been in a theatre in over a year. But I'm not missing it. Your article pretty much sums up why I don't like it.

The babies in cinemas thing really bothers me too. I mean honestly, is your baby going to have tons of fun being crushed up in a crowd of 200 people and having surround sound blasted at it? Obviously not. Bah!

I want a yoghurt bar in England. That would be awesome.

I had this exact experience the last time I saw a movie in theaters - 4 years ago.
The sound was so loud it practically blew out my eardrums, which could have been good so I wouldn't hear the babies that were "enjoying" an action movie.
And then wandering the mall after the movie were several awkward teens dressed like tramps. What parent lets their daughter walk around with a shirt that says "I KISS BOYS"?!
Thank you netflix. The 6 - 8 month wait for DVDs is well worth never having to go to a theater again.

I hate any noise in a cinema and have been known to let my feelings show to the person in question, so now I go to early or late shows and even sometimes wait a week before going to see new movies.

HOLY SHIT. IT IS THE END OF THE WORLD. ANGRY LURKER WAS NOT THE FIRST TO COMMENT!

The whole 80s feel to those prom dresses freaks me out.

When Im tequila drunk, I crave ice cream. i think you're on to something there.

"No babies allowed" should really be added to that list of rules!!

Booze for dessert sounds like heaven. i say go for it. Those dressed and red dresses hair are ridiculous! Prom dresses at a movie theatre is never alright!

lol, I love how you just take photos of them :D

I like actual dessert for dessert! Bring on the ice cream! :)

wow i totally would have been pissed as well

Hah! You take picture so you can proof what has happened! Awesome!

I dont like going to movie theaters in my town Too many stupid teenagers!

well, i saw the movie, it sucks to know that only three characters remain from the previous film, jack sparrow and two crew members and that it doesn't even follow on!

My wife and I went to see True Grit when it came out, but wisely went on a Tuesday morning during school hours. The place was practically deserted, and the adults who WERE there didn't play on their phones through the entire movie. Before that my last theater experience was The Simpsons Movie three or four years earlier.
The deafening sound systems, the sticky floors, the asshole children kicking the back of your seat, the adults narrating films for their infants, people with head colds sniffing and slurping coke through straws from the bottoms of empty two gallon cups, open-mouth chewing slobs snarfing down feed bags of popcorn. and paying a king's ransom for the privelege?
I used to love going to movies, but there isn't ANYTHING that will get me back in a theater now.

If I were IN CHARGE, theaters would offer patrons free headphones that plugged into jacks in the armrests of the seats, adjustable volumes. Alternative viewings would be screened that were ADULTS ONLY, not for content but for the pleasure of adults who don't want their fifty dollar movie "experience" ruined by a squawling brat or jabbering three year old. Another alternative viewing would offer closed captioning for the hearing impaired, because a lot of them would go if they knew what was being said on screen.
I'd pay to have a bouncer patrolling the theater tossing anyone whose phone rang, or who felt the need to beep-beep-beep text throughout the movie, or for talkers.
Guess I'm not fit for public any more.

Watch out, you'll be enjoying BOTH those movies yourself. I'll remember.

I'm also deeply interested in your alcoholic yogurt. However if I went to your business, I wouldn't be able to drink. Poo.

This is why I got a big screen TV. I don't ever want to have to sit with chatterboxes talking about the movie--or what they're doing that evening, cell phones, out of place laughter, the smell of popcorn (smells like stinky feet). UGH!

Yeah, I hate seeing a movie that just came out in theaters.. that's why I wait like a week..

I swear, one day I'm going to have a projector . lol

Yesterday the theater was so packed to see the new Pirates!!

it takes something really spectacular to get me to the theater for all the reasons you described. If I do, I usually roll out sans princess and hit a 2pm when the odds of screaming toddlers and rude ass people are slightly diminished. Good on you for capturing the moment with the slutty prom chicks. classic. Prom for teenagers must now be like halloween for grown women, a yearly excuse to dress like a slut and get away with it. ahh the memories.

Man I hate kids crying in theaters, but worse than that is people talking. Just being in a crowded movie theater is the worse, I always went during the week and always afternoon matinées. Like having the whole theater to yourself.

Lucky you. Having a girlfriend.

This is exactly we we made a kick-ass home theater (well, and for lots of other reasons, too). Projectors are fairly reasonably priced. :-)

What trashy dresses. Who wears puffy ones anymore? Idaho-ian sluts are SO out of the loop. At least the Connecticut tramps at my prom wore fashionable and sleek gowns with cut outs around their waste and a swooping V-neck. They're very fashionable. and slutty. but at least they actually look good. And who goes to the movies after prom anyway?

As much as I love to see most movies on the big screen I have given up completely on theaters for all the reasons you mention above (oh, and being a short person, always getting the tall guy to sit right in front of me in an almost empty theater).

this is why i am happy to have an operating drive in close by!

"The bad thing is I could probably get arrested if I told you. "

I think you'd like my "Requesting an Audience" post about audiences at the movie theaters.

Both those previews made me wonder how the hell those movies got greenlit, seriously.

I'm writing a movie that intentionally tries to be crappy, and points it out.

Totally agree with your thoughts on the pirates flick :D

Movie theaters just blow now a days. Shameful but true.

Man, I spent every penny I could on having the theater experience at home. I got sick of kids at Rated: R movies and tired of people who have seen the movie 85 times ruining scenes for you. I do one or two movies per year because I don't like the garbage that goes with it.

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His Own Private Idaho

Jay Shaw showed up at Dale Sherard’s place for the last time on the first Monday in February, in the middle of the afternoon and unannounced. He’d come to make sure Dale’s computer still worked, which, a lot of the time, it didn’t. Dale would poke a wrong button and the screen would freeze up, and then he’d have to call Jay to fix it. He liked Jay. _Despite his personality, _Dale would tease. Even after ten years in Marsing, Idaho, Jay still didn’t quite fit: He was a transplant from the East Coast, and sometimes the remnants of his big-city swagger, cocky and abrasive, got the best of him. But he fid Dale’s computer for free, and did the same for anyone else who asked. That’s what neighbors do in Marsing, help each other when they can. Jay was a good neighbor.

Marsing is a fleck of a town, population 1,031, on the Snake River an hour west of Boise. There are no stoplights in Marsing, no movie theaters or shopping centers, but there is an enormous sky, a view all the way to the Owyhee foothills, and thousands and thousands of cows. If one doesn’t ranch or farm, it’s a fine place to be a retired trucker, like Dale.

Jay had a dozen head of cattle on twelve acres next to Dale’s property, but he was not a rancher of any substance. Nor was he a farmer, though he did grow his own tomatoes and peppers. And he wasn’t retired, either, considering he was still in his early forties.

Jay managed the local irrigation association, keeping the pumps running, patching pipes, and making sure the bills got paid so that thirty-five families had water for their fields. But that was basically a volunteer job. Dale didn’t know what Jay did for a living. No one did. Sometimes Jay told people he was a freelance graphic designer, but as far as Dale could tell, he either didn’t make much at it or he was just cheap. Gut-shot tight with a nickel, Dale says. He haggled over hay for his cattle, wore the tires on his Saturn down to the cords, and ran out of gas often enough that Dale lost count of how many times he had to pick him up on the side of the road. Then again, Jay came to get him when the fuel pump in Dale’s truck blew out at Givens Hot Springs, so it all evened out.

Mostly, Jay looked after his kids. Or had, anyway, until Cara left and took the boy and the girl with her last summer. Cara was Jay’s wife or girlfriend, though Dale never knew which, and it wasn’t his business to ask. She’d worked as a bookkeeper at one of the orchards across the river while Jay stayed home with the children. He seemed like a good dad, too. Mister Mom, everyone called him. "Having kids is the greatest part of my life," Jay says now. "I wouldn’t trade it for anything."

When they were babies, he laundered the diapers and hung them to dry. As they got older he taught them how to read and to count and took them fishing in his little aluminum boat and showed them how to feed a newborn calf from a bottle. He got them ready for school in the morning and took them to the Whitehouse drive-through for hamburgers in the afternoon, and the boy followed him, close as a shadow, while Jay did his chores. Never saw him raise a hand to those kids, Dale says. More of a mother to those kids than their mother. It’d just about killed Jay when they left, and it was still all he could talk about, five months later—how much he missed the kids and how horrible he thought Cara was. How he had to get them back, and that was all that really mattered. So even though he said he came to check on the computer, Dale knew Jay really just wanted someone who would listen to him for a while.

Which Dale did for more than an hour. Then Jay got up, said he needed some hay and that he was going to see if he could get some from Bob Briggs, who farmed 500 acres on the other side of Hogg Road. He drove the Saturn out of Dale’s drive and down Hogg to where a side road wanders up into the Whispering Heights subdivision. Bob, who was out in his pickup checking his irrigation lines, saw Jay park on a patch of dirt, get out, and wave him over.

Bob wasn’t particularly fond of Jay. It’s not that he disliked him, exactly. He just thought Jay was. odd. A city boy playing rancher, so far as Bob knew, because Jay told him he’d grown up in New York. _He asked a lot of dumb questions. You’d give him good advice, and then he’d ignore it, Bob says. I thought everyone in New York was like him. And I was glad I didn’t live in New York. _On the other hand, Bob thought Jay was doing better in Marsing than he’d do in a big city out east.

Bob pulled to the edge of the road and rolled down his window. Jay asked about buying some hay, which he’d done once or twice before. But not very much, Bob says._ And he didn’t want to pay too much. And it was chaff. _

As they talked, a blue pickup rolled by. Jay watched as it continued north toward Cemetery Road.

Bob scoffed. That was a beautiful truck, a three-quarter-ton Chevy, new. "That ain’t no cop," he said. "I seen that pickup buying hay just like you."

The Chevy made a U at Cemetery, turned around, and started back up Hogg. A white sedan was now following it. As the pickup got closer, another white sedan appeared from the west, out of Whispering Heights. Blue lights flashed from all three dashboards, the truck and the sedans accelerating, then skidding to a stop next to Bob and Jay, boxing them in.

Six federal agents got out, eyeballed Jay.

"Are you Jay Shaw?" one of them asked.

Jay didn’t resist as he was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a car.

Bob stayed in his truck, watching more commotion than Hogg Road had probably ever seen. An agent checked his ID and seemed to take an awfully long time to believe Bob was just an old farmer. Once that was settled, Bob asked one of the agents what Jay had done wrong. The agent said he couldn’t tell him. Then Bob had one more question. "How’d he know that you were cops?"

"How do you know," the agent finally said, "when a cow is sick?"

Bob considered that. Experience, he guessed.

How Enrico Ponzo Became Jay Shaw

For sixteen years, Enrico Ponzo eluded the feds and survived a Mafia hit list. Here are some of the aliases that kept him alive.

Anthony Carroll (1996-98)

An identity stolen from a deceased 3-year-old Carroll was born in Missouri but grew up in the South and may have attended the University of South Alabama.

Kenneth Ralph Fidler (1998-2001)

Ponzo’s main alias during his Arizona years, Fidler was a computer technician with Mobile PC Doctors.

Montana-born, with a Pennsylvania driver’s license. Ponzo used this identity while briefly enrolled in North Seattle Community College.

Jeffrey John Shaw (2001-11)

Rancher, graphic designer, and recent New York transplant. Ponzo lived and raised his kids as Jay Shaw for a decade.

Roy Richardson had known Jay Shaw from the beginning, when Jay started working on the house on Hogg Road. Jay had paid cash, about $51,000, for the land, which he put in Cara’s name, and he paid cash to have the house built, too, handing stacks of bills to carpenters and roofers and electricians as though he didn’t have a checking account or a credit card. Roy thought about plumbing the place for him, but that would’ve been a big job, at least four grand if he used cheap fixtures and maybe ten if he didn’t. That seemed like an awful lot of paper under the table, which seemed like a good way for Roy to run into trouble he didn’t need. But Roy didn’t ask many questions. Nobody did. Marsing’s good like that.

Roy and Jay stayed friends over the years. Jay would come looking for cheap hay sometimes, and Roy would let him haul away the old, molding bales for next to nothing.

"I know you’re Mafia," Roy would tease him.

"What do you mean?" Jay would say, sometimes with an edge but usually not.

"You don’t work, and you never go anywhere, but you always have money. I know you’re Mafia." Then Roy would laugh while his grandkids chased after Jay so they could listen to the funny way he talked.

It was only a joke, Roy having some fun. Truth is, he didn’t know much at all about Jay.

**Jay Shaw—technically, **Jeffrey John Shaw, the name on his Arizona driver’s license—apparently did nothing wrong. The problem is, Jay Shaw isn’t Jay Shaw’s real name. It’s Enrico Ponzo. He’s not from New York, but rather Boston. And according to state and federal prosecutors, that guy, Ponzo, did many, many things wrong.

Most seriously, he is accused of trying to kill two men and of conspiring to kill several others. He also allegedly possessed large amounts of cocaine and assaulted a Boston police officer who arrested him for possessing said cocaine, also allegedly.

He is charged, too, with various counts of racketeering and other such federal crimes that get layered into the indictments of reputed mobsters, which Ponzo supposedly was when he was a young man. (He’s pleaded not guilty to everything.)

He grew up in Swampscott, a comfortable seaside town on Boston’s North Shore, but his father managed a restaurant in the city, where Ponzo spent much of his time. The restaurant was in the North End, a traditionally Italian neighborhood that, at the time, was also the headquarters of the local Mafia franchise, an affiliate of the Patriarca family run out of Providence. At some point in the late 1980s (exactly when and why are unclear, but the reasons can fairly be summarized as young and foolish), Ponzo allegedly decided he wanted to be a mobster.

In the narrative assembled by the authorities, Ponzo’s life of crime was both violent and inept, which fits remarkably well with the broader story of organized crime in New England during those years. Raymond Patriarca Sr. had been an old-school Mafia boss, ironfisted and disciplined. But when he died of a heart attack in 1984, control of the family fell to his son, Raymond Jr., who was not so disciplined. Nor was he considered especially bright he was held in such low esteem that his nickname was the dismissively bland Junior.

So Ponzo began his criminal career (again, allegedly, which is hereby appended to the next several paragraphs) with a decaying organization. In the Mafia hierarchy, a kid like Ponzo would have been an associate, not a made man himself but allied with one—in his case, a renegade capo named Bobby Carrozza, who happened to be staging an insurrection against Junior. On the surface, and maybe in truth, too, it was a routine power grab: Carrozza wanted Junior to open the books—that is, induct new members—who presumably would then be loyal to the man who helped get them made, Carrozza.

The Carrozza faction asked to open the books. Junior refused. They demanded. Junior declined. So to speed negotiations, Carrozza affiliates shot a couple of Junior’s lieutenants.

One target was an underboss named Billy "the Wild Guy" Grasso. He got a bullet in the back of the neck. The second was Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme, a Boston soldier who’d been acting as an intermediary between the Carrozza faction and Junior. He was walking toward the front door of an IHOP on a dreary commercial strip in Saugus, Massachusetts, when a rented sedan squealed into the parking lot. Two passengers with guns sprayed bullets in his general direction. Salemme—badly injured, but not fatally wounded—dove for cover as the shooters peeled away.

One of the shooters, according to a federal indictment, was Enrico Ponzo. He was 20 years old.

After that, Ponzo’s rap sheet reads like that of your standard street thug. In 1989 he was picked up on assault and firearms charges, and he was arrested in 1992 for beating a stranger outside a hotel with an ex-con and reputed killer named Billy Herd. In a mug shot from that time, he looks the part, too—meaty faced and scowling under a thick head of dark hair. He was apparently making a name for himself. _The Boston Globe _reported after the 1992 arrest that Ponzo was "considered by law enforcement to be a Mafia up-and-comer." But being an up-and-comer in that particular criminal organization seldom ends well. The pledge to _leave it dead _is often literal, and typically not via natural causes. The retirement options as often as not are prison or turning state’s evidence. For all the mumblings of omertà and loyalty, people involved in organized crime are by definition criminals, and typically ambitious and opportunistic ones.

Which Ponzo apparently realized in the fall of 1994. He’d had a bad summer, having been arrested in July by Boston police for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and for assaulting the officer who handcuffed him. A court hearing was scheduled for later in the fall, Ponzo posted his bail, and then he was back on the streets.

It all started to unravel after that. Maybe the old mob insurrection from 1989 reignited, or maybe an entirely new one broke out, or maybe the Boston Mafia by the middle of the 1990s had simply rotted into a dysfunctional menagerie of coked-up, trigger-happy half-wits. Any theory is as good as another. For whatever reasons, though, a lot of people around Ponzo started getting shot.

On September 2, an associate named Mikey Romano Jr. was ecuted near an Everett bar, the Stadium Café, moments after Ponzo and another man left him to change a flat tire. Two weeks later, the owner of the Stadium survived five gunshots on a street in Revere. "It definitely doesn’t seem like a coincidence," one cop told the Globe the day after. It wasn’t: Ponzo and three others were later charged with that shooting, allegedly his second attempted—and failed—hit.

The bloodletting continued through the fall and into the winter of 1994. In late October, a mob enforcer named Joseph Souza was shot dead on an East Boston street corner. Two months later, a 25-year-old associate of Ponzo’s named Paul Strazzulla was found in a burning Oldsmobile in a VFW parking lot in Revere. He was suspected of being a snitch, and dead before the car was torched.

Ponzo was a ghost by then. He missed a November court date on the state drug charges, skipped bail, vanished. Maybe he was running from the law, but probably not. (He had a very good lawyer.) Most likely he was running for his life. A lot of people, in fact, assumed he was dead, because Enrico Ponzo was supposed to be dead. Three years after he fled, a federal grand jury indicted Ponzo and fourteen other men for an enormous assortment of crimes. It is an eighty-seven-page chronology of Boston’s incoherent mob wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and Ponzo plays two opposing roles. In it, he is accused of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, and drug trafficking. Yet he appears, first on page 14 and then on 67, under different circumstances. "In or about October, 1994," the indictment reads, "Michael P. Romano, Sr., Anthony Ciampi and Paul A. DeCologero, defendants herein, did knowingly and intentionally combine, conspire, confederate and agree with each other and with other persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury to murder Enrico M. Ponzo."

True? Maybe, though DeCologero was acquitted in 1999. Still, if there is no honor among thieves—and there isn’t—there is even less among renegade mobsters. Of course Ponzo ran.

Jay Shaw showed up in Marsing in the spring of 2001. "I came in along Sunnyslope, you know that road?" he told me from prison in Massachusetts. That’s the local name for part of Highway 55, which runs parallel to and above the Snake River before it bends down and across the water, the town laid out on the other bank like a stage set. "It looked like a great place to raise kids."

Enrico Ponzo had been dead for more than six years by then. Jay Shaw killed him, which is difficult to do, and then kept him dead, which is even harder. It helped that many of his criminal associates assumed it was physically true. "We thought he was buried out in the desert," says one, who called me from a different prison, and he isn’t far off. After fleeing Boston, Ponzo ended up in Arizona. He later told his new neighbors in Marsing that he studied computers in Phoenix and that he met Cara there in the last half of the ’90s. That is nearly impossible to confirm, however, because Ponzo declines to talk about those years,1 Cara won’t talk at all (at the house where she lives with her parents, her father told me to go away and not come back), and Jeffrey John Shaw left very few public footprints.

Which is, in its own way, impressive. Abandoning one life and adopting a new one requires extreme discipline. The basic mechanics can be studied, however, which Ponzo did intensely: When federal agents searched his house after the arrest, they seized twenty-two books with titles like How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, Counterfeit I.D. Made Easy, and Vanish! (They left behind hundreds of others, including dozens of legal volumes Ponzo is a voracious reader. He’s one of those people, one friend from Marsing says, he reads something, it just soaks in.) The paperwork is not a serious obstacle for anyone with access to old obituaries and public records. Ponzo, in fact, had his picture on driver’s licenses and other documents from five states under eight names. Before he was Jay Shaw, he lived for a while as Kenneth R. Fidler, who, according to the real Fidler’s obituary, drowned in Colorado in 1970, when he was 5 years old. Ponzo pulled a copy of the boy’s birth certificate on June 3, 1996, which he then used to get a Social Security card, an Arizona learner’s permit, and a driver’s license. He also had his photo on a Glendale Community College student ID in that name and on a badge for a computer company called Mobile PC Doctors, which listed his title as "computer tech." A name can also simply be invented, and corresponding IDs can be forged from black-market blanks. That appears to be the case with Jeffrey John Shaw.

Pretending to be someone else is relatively easy. The difficulty is in becoming someone else. It requires, first, walling off the past, severing ties to everyone and everything, missing a sister’s wedding and a mother’s funeral, shutting it all away. Second, it requires keeping the immediate present and an imagined past simultaneously convincing and amorphous. A fabricated history has to be textured enough to be credible, but not so detailed that it can be checked or contradicted or forgotten.

Cara told people at the orchard where she worked that Jay wanted to live off the grid, which isn’t all that peculiar in rural Idaho and which would explain, among other things, why he put the land in her name and paid cash for the house. He had it built at the back of the lot, which slopes up to a ridge running parallel to Hogg Road. The master bedroom and bath were on the ground floor, windowless and dug into the side of the slope like a bunker. On the main floor, he wrapped a deck around two sides under wide windows that gave him a clear view of Hogg and across the high plain to the Owyhees. He could see anyone coming for miles.

1. In several telephone conversations, Ponzo spoke only about his children and his years in Idaho. Because he is potentially facing decades in federal prison, he wisely declined to discuss any events, alleged or otherwise, that might have occurred before 2001. He also asked that no inferences about his guilt, innocence, or general character be drawn from that caution none are, nor should be.

Jay was neighborly enough, but an obvious outsider. Jim Briggs, Bob’s son, who lives directly across the road from Jay’s place,invited Jay and Cara over for a barbecue shortly after they moved in, but he didn’t much care for either of them. They were just too. I don’t know, New Yorky is the only way he can explain it.

If anything, Jay was a curiosity. Bodie Clapier, a third-generation Marsing rancher who raises cattle and hay on 800 acres that wrap around Jay’s place, would see him in his field wearing bib overalls and a straw hat, which hadn’t been the fashion since Bodie’s grandpa’s day. It was like Jay was playing a role he’d studied in an antique picture book. He didn’t know anything about ranching or cattle, but he was always willing to help a neighbor anyway. He was annoying, he wanted to help so much, Bodie says. Yeah, Dale says,_ he wanted to help, but he just didn’t have much ability._ He had good livestock, though, a small herd that grew over the years. But they were all slick, which means they were unbranded. Registering a brand involves filing paperwork with the authorities.

If Jay Shaw was a cipher, Cara was a complete mystery. Though she lived on Hogg Road with Jay for nearly ten years, her neighbors and co-workers claim not to know much about her beyond the fact that she is a redhead and taller and heavier than Jay. _No, not fat at all, Dale says. Just a big woman. She would wave and say hello, but after all those years living next door, Dale can’t recall a single conversation of any substance. Even their closest friends—Kelly Verceles, an ex-Marine who moved to Marsing in 2005, and Angie, who doesn’t want her last name or her husband’s first in print—don’t seem to have known her well. The most notable things they have to say are that Cara made a terrific cheesecake for Thanksgiving dessert, she knew a lot about guns and ammunition and could load her own cartridges, and she had a swastika tattooed on her right leg, which she later had covered with new ink.2 She’d had a difficult adolescence—though in what way no one seems to know—and apparently left home young. But she didn’t talk about the details. S_he was real quiet, Angie says. I knew where she worked, and she said something about having a tough time as a child, but that’s really it.


River and Elliott: Remembering two troubled princes of 1990s Portland

From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy.

Portland and Oregon haven’t traditionally produced a lot of bold-type names that have endured in the international pop zeitgeist. Far from America’s entertainment capitols, this is arguably a place where talents are nurtured, not where one becomes a full-fledged star. The most high-profile artists, such as the great abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko or Simpsons creator Matt Groening, have tended to move on and live their career-defining creative moments elsewhere. Yet even if their time here is fleeting, sometimes these artists don’t just remain culturally relevant long after their deaths but also come to represent something essential about a particular time in the city.

Last month brought reminders of two such one-time Oregonians and what they left behind. October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart, but each moment of mortality came in Los Angeles, and the two sites are less than nine miles away from each other: Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho

The coincidences don’t end there. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith were born within a year of each other: Smith in Nebraska (he was raised until age 14 in Texas) and Phoenix in Madras, Oregon (raised mostly in Florida). Each arguably made his most famous work in collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. Phoenix co-starred (along with Keanu Reeves) in Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho and Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for the song “Miss Misery,” on the soundtrack to Van Sant’s 1998 film Good Will Hunting. Each struggled with drug abuse, which in different ways led to each artist’s untimely death. River Phoenix and Elliott Smith presumably never met, yet each is a kind of fleeting prince of ’90s Portland, and their work acts as time capsule and talisman for the days many locals now look to longingly: a grittier, more affordable and off-the-radar city that predated Portlandia, a succession of swooning New York Times stories, and an ensuing wave of tourism and gentrification.

Like Rothko, neither stayed here for good. But also like Rothko and many of the city’s other most famous sons and daughters, Phoenix and Smith were transplants to the city who saw Portland with fresh eyes. Like rain clouds that give way to bright sunlight almost daily for much of the year, each artist’s Portland-based work is personal and often deeply melancholic, yet also joyful, lyrical and instinctual. It’s not always pretty, yet we are drawn to their work again and again.

By the time Phoenix signed on to star in My Own Private Idaho, he had long since become a star, thanks to such minor Hollywood classics as 1986’s Oregon-filmed Stand by Me and 1988’s Running on Empty, the latter of which brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But Idaho, the third in Van Sant’s trilogy of Portland-set films (preceded by 1986’s Mala Noche and 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy), would become the role of Phoenix’s career and the standout classic in its director’s now decades-long portfolio.

While Drugstore was initially a greater critical success for Van Sant, winning Best Film and Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics in 1989, Idaho is somehow the film that endures in public imagination and as a lasting artistic achievement. Besides being a landmark of gay cinema, casting two young Hollywood heartthrobs as lovers, it also turned out to be Van Sant’s most cinematically ambitious effort.

The premise of My Own Private Idaho is audacious if not a little crazy. The film is a loose interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I and Part II—the story of a delinquent, debauchery-loving prince planning to shed his skin and embrace his more virtuous monarchical destiny—transposed to the realm of contemporary Portland street hustlers. As legend has it, Phoenix and Reeves spent nights on the streets of Old Town researching their roles by hanging out with the city’s young street denizens, some of whom would enjoy supporting roles in the film.

Phoenix plays a hustler named Mike with a handicap—narcolepsy drops him off to sleep in any moment of stress. We first watch him collapse in sleep by the side of a rural highway, his possessions and even his shoes stripped from him as he slumbers then he collapses in the middle of turning a trick, carried out of a rich woman’s house by his fellow hustlers and left slumped against a tree. Reeves’s young Prince Hal figure, Scott (in this case a Portland mayor’s son), is along for the ride as part brotherly companion, part lover. Yet this quirky Shakespearean tale is also bookended by and interwoven with a larger quest, played out under the limitless skies and golden hues of the eastern Oregon landscape, as Phoenix’s Mike searches fruitlessly for his long-lost mother: to the Idaho of his youth, to Italy, and finally back to Portland.

The original poster for My Own Private Idaho

Part of what makes My Own Private Idaho so great is how Van Sant conjures indelible cinematic moments: time-lapse footage of clouds rolling over the Oregon landscape symbolic slow-motion shots of salmon (Mike’s spirit-animal Phoenix even wears a salmon-colored jacket) fighting their way upstream and even an entire house falling from the sky onto the highway. It’s dazzling cinema that makes both rural and urban Oregon its muse like perhaps no other movie. That Van Sant has gone on to make several Hollywood movies that overdose on schmaltz and are short on cinematic eye candy, and few if any great works of art (the Cannes winner Elephant and the Matt Damon/Casey Affleck vehicle Gerry perhaps being exceptions) only makes Idaho all the more special in his oeuvre. In fact, it’s as if Van Sant refuses to enter Idaho-like territory. Consider, for example, that his last film, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot—a profile of cartoonist John Callahan starring River Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin, which is set in Portland and another story of a lonely man’s longing for his mother—was shot in Los Angeles. Suffice to say, there are no houses falling onto the highway.

At least unofficially, My Own Private Idaho owes as much to Phoenix as Van Sant—and not just as it relates to the acting. After all, River Phoenix didn’t just act in Idaho he reportedly was able to alter the script and his character. The draft that Van Sant brought to the actors didn’t include romance between their two lead characters, but by the time production was complete, Idaho’s most touching moment was a campfire embrace wherein Mike declares his love for Reeves’s Scott. Phoenix is at his zenith here as an actor, a marvel of delicacy, communicating a blend of easy cool and endearing vulnerability.

Both Phoenix and Reeves came to the Idaho cast with something to prove: that they could be serious dramatic actors. To a large extent it worked for both. While Reeves has never been considered a master thespian, his roles in blockbuster franchises like The Matrix and even the more recent John Wick movies have cemented his place in movie history. And for Phoenix, post-Idaho there was no longer any doubt that the child actor we’d seen in Explorers and the angst-ridden teen of The Mosquito Coast (not to mention a memorable “Family Ties” guest-starring turn) had graduated to leading roles with the charisma, looks and vulnerability of a budding superstar. Would it be going too far to say he was the James Dean of his time? Maybe. But the comparison is not ludicrous.

Of course longevity was not to be for Phoenix. Within 25 months of Idaho’s release, his story ended, just like Mike’s, collapsed on the pavement—in this case on a Hollywood sidewalk rather than Highway 216, and sadly, not simply asleep for a few minutes. The brother with him that night, Joachin Phoenix, would go on to enjoy the long acting career River never got.

A house near Southeast Division Street where Smith lived in the early 󈨞s. Photo: Brian Libby

The year of Idaho’s release was also a turning point for Elliott Smith. In 1991 he had just returned to Portland after four years at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and promptly formed the band Heatmiser with three musician friends. Over the ensuing years, Heatmiser would become a fixture at celebrated indie-rock clubs like the X-Ray Café and La Luna, while also recording albums like 1993’s Dead Air and 1994’s Cop and Speeder that infused punk energy with melodicism. The band was part of a broader indie rock scene that included Pond, Crackerbash, The Spinanes, The Dandy Warhols and Quasi.

After Nirvana’s breakout success, both indie and major labels began combing Portland clubs looking for the next grunge sensation. And what was grunge but punk with a little more melody and a flannel shirt? Heatmiser received enough attention that a major label, Virgin Records, eventually came calling. But by that time Smith was ready to venture out on his own, breaking up Heatmiser just as they’d made the big time. As the singer-songwriter explained in a later interview, he had grown tired of screaming all the time as a member of a loud rock band. And besides, by that time Smith was gaining notice for a series of stripped-down solo albums with little more than voice and an acoustic guitar. To the astonishment of many, they sounded less like punk or grunge and more like Simon & Garfunkel or Nick Drake. Smith’s solo debut, 1994’s Roman Candle, was released at the height of the grunge era but also just nine months before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, essentially prefiguring (and perhaps even giving birth to) the emo-core wave that would in time follow grunge.

In the four years between Roman Candle’s release and Smith’s leap to international fame with the Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery,” local audiences who had feasted on loud guitars and pounding punk rhythms filled Portland clubs for his solo acoustic shows, trading chaotic mosh pits for stillness and pin-drop quiet. Not only was there the wistful simplicity of Smith’s voice and acoustic guitar. It was also how the singer-songwriter bared his soul in his lyrics. Though some songs were inspired by others’ lives, it was clear that for the sensitive, often-depressed Smith, music was a confessional and a lifeline. Yet in his almost Lennon-McCartney like gift for melody, even his sad songs feel uplifting.

The cover of Smith’s 1997 album Either/Or

In those early Elliott Smith albums recorded here, through his 1997 masterwork Either/Or (his last for indie label Kill Rock Stars before signing with the mammoth Dreamworks and leaving Portland for New York), the singer-songwriter also painted a cinematic if melancholy picture of the city. You can almost feel the gray wintertime skies in songs like “Alameda,” as he sings:

You walk down Alameda
Looking at the cracks in the sidewalk
Thinking about your friends
How you maintain all them in
A constant state of suspense

For your own protection
Over their affection
Nobody broke your heart
You broke your own because you can’t
Finish what you start

When the Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” came, Smith’s life changed overnight. If that new audience and international media attention meant exponentially greater album sales and the end of his penny-pinching way of life—staying in nice hotels on tour instead of sleeping in the van or on some stranger’s floor, not to mention no longer moonlighting as a drywall contractor by day—it also isolated Elliott from his community of not-so-affluent friends and musicians still sleeping on those floors. This time in his life was also accompanied by increasing drug abuse and greater depressions. Perhaps Smith new that despite overwhelmingly positive reviews for albums like XO and Figure 8 as well as a worldwide audience of admirers (he was particularly smitten when a musical hero, Elvis Costello, attended a London show), DreamWorks saw its Smith signing as essentially an investment that didn’t quite pay off because he wasn’t the megastar they envisioned.

Inside the Southeast Portland house where Smith recorded his debut solo album, 1994’s Roman Candle. Photo: Brian Libby

Like Cobain, Smith also retained that nagging Gen X rocker’s worry that he’d sold out. Maybe today a young fan who falls in love with Figure 8 doesn’t care that it was recorded for DreamWorks instead of Kill Rock Stars. After all, going to a major label gave Smith a bigger palette of instruments and fellow musicians to work and record with. Yet for Smith, the decision wasn’t without impact. In “King’s Crossing,” one of Smith’s best posthumously-released songs, he sings, “The method acting that pays my bills/keeps the fat man feeding in Beverly Hills.”

Particularly in the couple of years before his 2003 death, Smith was a shell of his former self, consuming cocktails of heroin, crack and prescription drugs. At times onstage, he even had to abort songs halfway through because he couldn’t remember his own lyrics. Yet Smith was also in those final months showing signs of recovery and renewal, which enabled the superlative album he was working on when he died. Songs on the magnificent From a Basement on the Hill (including “King’s Crossing”) exhibit a layered richness of sound that goes beyond what he recorded in Portland a few years earlier. Yet it all screeched to a halt in Silver Lake—whether inevitably, as some observers maintained, or out of the blue.

Today I can’t look at certain places in Portland and Oregon without thinking of them.

For River Phoenix and My Own Private Idaho, there is the Elk statue downtown on Southwest Main Street between Chapman and Lownsdale squares, where early in the film Scott cradles a sleeping Mike in his arms. There is also the stretch of Broadway downtown near the Benson Hotel where the duo cruise the street on Scott’s motorcycle, handsomely and heroically, like cinema’s sunglasses-masked successors to The Wild One and Easy Rider. And perhaps most of all, there is a lonely stretch of Highway 216, east of the Cascades and not far from the tiny town of Tygh Valley, where River Phoenix begins and ends the movie, succumbing to narcoleptic seizure. Last year my partner and I found the coordinates online and made a pilgrimage. To get there you drive white-knuckled through a series of hairpin turns through a small Deschutes River gorge, and then suddenly you come onto a plateau where the road seems to unfold forever.

Highway 216 near Tygh Valley, Oregon, where My Own Private Idaho begins and ends with River Phoenix asleep on the side of the road. Photo: Brian Libby

If one seeks vestiges of Elliott Smith’s Portland, it’s not just the venues where he took the stage (one of which, La Luna, is now a café of the same name), but also, if you know where to look, one of the many Southeast Portland houses where he lived and recorded. Roman Candle, for instance, was recorded in a home on Southeast Taylor Street that recently was listed for rent. (And yes, I admittedly took a tour.) Smith also lived in another Southeast Portland house, off Division Street, that prompted him to sometimes spend late nights hanging out on a bench in the rose gardens of Ladd’s Addition the documentary Heaven Adores You includes a long shot looking down over the neighborhood. In “St. Ides Heaven,” he writes

Everything is exactly right
When I walk around here drunk every night
With an open container from 7-11

Division Street itself also wound up inspiring a lyric in “Punch and Judy” (on Either/Or), albeit not exactly an ideal marketing tagline:

Driving around up and down Division Street
I used to like it here
It just bums me out to remember

Every time I listen to “Punch and Judy,” that line makes me wonder what Smith would have made of gentrified Division Street now, with its canyon of condos and string of popular restaurants. It’s a phenomenon that has swept most close-in east side neighborhoods—precisely the formerly cheap old houses he and his friends used to inhabit.

Even so, to absorb the work of Smith (especially his early records) and Phoenix (particularly My Own Private Idaho) is to make a nostalgic return to ‘90s Portland. And yet, through the power of these works and these two princes’ immense talent, their work also transcends that time capsule. Even if their tragically early deaths don’t guarantee them true artistic immortality, the more Portland changes, the more their works resonate.


And this is why we can’t have nice things.

I continue to participate in the #52Essays challenge, the challenge to write an essay a week for the year. I’ve been attempting to meet that goal each year since taking on the challenge in 2017. Last year was my least successful year. And yes, I could say that was because of Covid, but that would just be an easy cover. I mean, I did write less last year than I usually do, but I still wrote quite a lot. I posted 12 essays last year — half the number I posted in 2019 — but I wrote many more essays than that. Covid was part of what kept me away from this space, but it wasn’t the main thing.

I jokingly call myself the Queen of Oversharing. It’s only sometimes true. I talk a lot, and can definitely talk too much, but I don’t always share the deep stuff, expose my tender underbelly. Except on this page. For whatever reason, I often share things here that I haven’t found a way to talk about with the people I am close with.

Most of the people who read here don’t know me in person. Some of my friends and family read here, too, however. So do a few of my coworkers. And that’s fine. And it’s also strange sometimes. Strangest of all when lines blur and someone who falls into the surprise category of “strangers I know” starts reading here, starts interacting here.

And that’s what happened last year. Someone I’ve never met but to whom I am connected started reading here, started interacting here in a way that felt judgmental and mocking. And I was trying to manage being in quarantine and found that I couldn’t also manage even a quiet confrontation — couldn’t or just didn’t want to spend the energy on turning a conversation I didn’t want to have into something that wasn’t a confrontation. Instead, I chose to leave this space dormant for the better part of the year.

Which pissed me off. And made me sad. This page is one of my preferred release valves. Shutting it down because someone I didn’t want to see walked into the room wasn’t the best self-care I’ve ever practiced. If ever I needed a proven release valve, I needed one last year.

Last night I posted about my history of not settling in the places I’ve lived, posted about the fact that I am not settled in the place I currently live. And today the name of that “stranger I know” dropped into the inbox of my work email. And I had a stomach ache for the rest of the day. I don’t know if they are still reading here. But I am annoyed to find that I am still made uncomfortable by the possibility that they are.

This space is mine. These stories are mine. That person holds no power over me, and I refuse to give them the power to silence me again. If they’re reading here, they are. If they choose to share my stories with their coworkers, that’s just what will happen. All of the ways that I am ugly and flawed here are all of the ways that I am ugly and flawed in real life. Keeping myself away from this space, not posting the pieces I’ve written expressly for this space … that’s like writing lies in my diary to protect myself against someone else reading it.

Saying all of that out loud is a good reminder to me to keep standing in my truth and holding my space and, really, to hell with anyone who chooses to mock or judge me for any of it.

And this is why I will have nice things.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!


Thoughts on My Own Private Idaho?

I've watched this film a few times after checking out all of River Phoenix's, but still don't fully grasp it. I don't know anyone else who has watched it or what they think about it so I came here, after lurking intermittently for a year or so. There's obviously a whole lot ⟺mily issues' that come into play, mother and father figures that drive a lot of the characters, but I don't understand much more. If anyone has some insight, I would really appreciate it. I apologize if this is the wrong place, or the format is incorrect, but I've seen some good analysis here and would love to discuss it, thanks!

There's a lot of interesting things going on with My Own Private Idaho. A lot of the father figure issues that you mention are traced back to no one other than William Shakespeare. The film is a reinterpretation of 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, both in plot and (occasionally) in actual dialogue.

Scott Favor, Keanu's character, is a stand-in for Prince Hal (the future King Henry V Monmouth). In the play, Hal lives a casual life amongst drunks and criminals, leading his father the King (Henry IV Bolingbroke) to believe that his son will never be worthy of the throne. There is a monologue early in the first play that reveals that this is an intentional part of Hal's plan:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men's hopes

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering oɾr my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I'll so offend, to make offence a skill

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

By choosing to appear foolish and unworthy, Hal intends to look even more kingly and worthy by contrast once he starts giving a damn, which happens later on in that play when Hotspur decides to try (but fails) to usurp the throne.

Duality is an important aspect of the play, between day and night, court and tavern, Hotspur and Hal, and the King and Falstaff. Falstaff is a drunk and criminal old knight who acts as a second father figure for Hal. Once Henry Bolingbroke dies at the end of 2 Henry IV, Falstaff arrives at court to receive his share of Hal's fortune. However, Hal rejects him, seeing that part of his life over as he prepares to rule England. Falstaff, who did love Hal (and was loved by him), dies of heartbreak.

This is the long way around of pointing out some scenes in the film that mirror scenes from the two plays. In the beginning of 1 Henry IV, Falstaff prepares to rob some pilgrims. Hal and his friend Poins then rob Falstaff's gang. They meet back at the tavern and listen to Falstaff claim that a huge number of men assaulted them and relieved them of their booty. This scene happens again in My Own Private Idaho, but with Scott and Mikey standing in for Hal and Poins, and Bob standing in for Falstaff. Not only is this incident repeated, but much of Shakespeare's dialogue is replicated line for line. (Indeed, Bob is introduced into the movie by reciting the most famous of Falstaff's lines, "We have heard the chimes at midnight.")

Again at the end of the movie, we see a reproduction of a scene from 2 Henry IV. Bob confronts Scott at a fancy restaurant after Scott has inherited his father's money, but Scott rejects him outright. Bob dies of a heart attack.

Hopefully this has addressed some of the issues of concerning father figures and motivations. There's so much more to talk about, like the Pacific northwest setting, the queer angles, the artistic photography, the narcolepsy. This is a dense movie at times, but I think it's probably Gus Van Sant's best.


Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Carrie”)

Her pick: “8 1/2”

I always say Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” is my favorite movie and that it made me a director. “8 1/2” expressed desire in ways I yearned to express but had never seen in any art form. It burst open a door of opportunity of what could be done and how. I revisited this beloved movie during quarantine. I was stunned. It’s gorgeous, free, powerful and deeply reflective of my aspirations to make art about human relationships and sexuality, and also reflective of both my 13-year-old and current self.

I loved women. Marcello Mastroianni as Guido loved and was loved by women of all kinds, beauty idols he unearthed from prior cinema days. Marcello felt his desire and acted freely — in and beyond marriage. I wanted to move through the world as an elegant 1960s Italian male. Handsome Marcello, with his sweeping silver-fox hair, in his Martini slim-fit black suit, thin black tie, crisp white shirt and overcoat, became my avatar.

As Marcello visits a 1930s Italian spa, he recalls a seminal moment when desire led him and other boys to escape Catholic school and run down the beach. A full-bodied woman with voluptuous bosom and wild hair emerges from a stone hut. Young Marcello offers her a coin and asks her to “dance the rumba.” She slowly exposes her shoulders and mountainous breasts, then sways her hips and dances. The boys jump wildly as she pulls young Marcello into a dance and lifts him into the air.

Like Marcello and the boys (and the film itself), I was wild with excitement and desire ― sensual and sexual. And then it all comes crashing down. The priests, like Keystone Cops, scramble in, grab Marcello, then shame and castigate him. This is a traumatic moment. His desire is pure, but he is haunted by the feeling he is sinning in society’s eyes. He replays this memory over and over.

Of course, as straight men, Marcello, Guido and Fellini’s desire is codified as the norm, and that brings all kinds of benefits and ease regarding being comfortable in their gendered body and attracting women. But my homo and trans-ish 13-year-old self latched onto our commonality of shame and Fellini’s wonderful identification with and depiction of THE LOVER ― loving desire and the imagination. Society and many movies make you feel sexual desire is wrong. Not Fellini. He makes you feel it is oh-so-right. I had no homo and/or trans cinema examples when I was young, so I enveloped myself in Fellini, shapeshifting in order to satisfy my desire and express myself until I could make my own story, “Boys Don’t Cry.”


How Keanu Reeves overcame a troubled childhood and heartbreaking losses to become Hollywood's most beloved actor

Keanu Reeves has appeared in numerous films, ranging from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" to action hits like "John Wick" and "Speed," as well as period pieces like "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Dangerous Liaisons."

But before Reeves became one of the biggest names in Hollywood, he was living in Toronto and seriously considering a career in ice hockey.

Born to English and American parents in Lebanon, Reeves lived in Sydney and New York with his family before moving to Toronto when he was approximately seven years old.

Keanu is of Chinese-Hawaiian and European descent, and has spoken of feeling connected to both his Chinese and his English heritage.

And lately, the actor has been making headlines as people are realizing he's actually a pretty nice guy. But it hasn't been all joy for the internet's latest boyfriend.


James Franco&rsquos Private River

River Phoenix’s disheveled pompadour, furrowed brow, and guilty sidelong glances. Keanu Reeves’ puppyish open-mouthed grin as the wind ruffles his feathery mane. Recut by doe-eyed fanboy turned fledgling director James Franco, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho footage has never looked better than it does in My Own Private River.

This past Sunday, a nearly sold-out crowd (replete with male and female Marla Sokoloff wannabes) welcomed silver screen Adonis James Franco and renowned Portland-based director Gus van Sant to the Hollywood Theatre. The duo, who forged their friendship on the set of 2008’s Milk, prefaced Franco’s recut with a 30-minute discussion followed by a Q&A session (Read: Franco induced swoon-fest). What were we going to see? Almost all cutting-room-floor footage, pieced back together to create a vignette of the original narrative from its negative space. What else is new? Well:

Less Talk, More Silence, More Stipe
For a novice director, Franco has made some really astute decisions. Seemingly with no fear of offending his hero Van Sant, he’s wisely omitted the pseudo-Elizabethan dialogue that had been a key feature of the original film. Choosing longer takes and more disorienting angles, he lulls the audience into a meditative right-brained reverie. With the addition of a couple custom-crafted Michael Stipe songs, the mood is set for motorcycle rides and leaf-strewn park romps.

Less Romance, More Family
The temptation at the time of its 1991 release was to look at Idaho as a young gay romance—after all, it was one of the first “mainstream” pictures that even implied same-sex love, released in the same year as the sapphic Fried Green Tomatoes, and predating the more overt Brokeback Mountain by 13 years. At the time, the notion of two Hollywood hunks in a cuddle puddle overshadowed all subtler themes. But in his pre-film talk, Franco confessed a different reason that the original film had meant so much to him as a teenager: “I guess I was really fascinated by this idea of forming your own family,” he said. “I come from a great family, but when I was younger, I definitely had this feeling like, ‘where are my people? where are the people who truly understand me?’” Hence, in Franco’s edit, Pheonix is more orphaned urchin, than he is jilted lover. A failed quest to connect with his father or find his mother also ends up robbing him of his brother-in-arms, and in the final scene, we see him sleeping alone on the streets, and trying in vain to hit up his former hustler friends for food and drugs.

Don’t open that door!
Watching River Phoenix snort (what looks like) cocaine is, in 20/20 hindsight, almost exactly like watching a nightgown-clad horror movie heroine investigate a strange noise. You know what’s going to happen next, and you know it’s gonna hurt.

Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves…
Though they’ve set a permanent place at the table for River Phoenix’s ghost, Van Sant and Franco made little mention of costar Keanu, whose (Dog) star seems to have lately faded. One wonders if Reeves was really too busy promoting his new depressive picture-book Ode to Happiness to join this conversation, or if he wasn’t invited because Franco (a new feathery-haired stoner-role actor made good) is essentially “standing in.” Better to burn out than to fade away, eh? (Well, for the purpose of the next part of our analysis, the kid’s back in the picture.)

Back-stories
Born in Beirut to a costume designer and a heroin dealer, Keanu Reeves began his career at age nine during his mother’s short-lived marriage to Hollywood director Paul Aaron, the second of her four husbands. Meanwhile, River Phoenix’s “hippieish” parents spent his childhood following the Children of God cult as far as Venezuela, before doing an about-face to Hollywood and getting all 5 of their children hooked in with a casting agent when River—the eldest—was just 10. So when Reeves and Phoenix “acted” like disoriented kids navigating a landscape of existential confusion and exploitation in Idaho—in all likelihood they were just revealing their personal truth.

But whence James Franco’s edge? Compared to the actors he champions, he comes from a place of privilege. At 20, the son of well-connected Stanford grads dropped out of college against his parents’ wishes to pursue acting. He took a night job at McDonald’s to fund his alternative education—only to be quickly relieved of his debt by his professor the moment he showed promise. While Phoenix’s and Reeves’ entry into acting seems to have brought them in from the cold, Franco’s looks more like an attempt to escape middle-class conformity by experimenting with deprivation and challenge. But even through this concerted effort, it seems that can’t-lose Franco couldn’t shake his safety net.

Ironically, folks on the societal fringes (like the hustlers portrayed in this film, or quite possibly the men who portrayed them) share a key trait with the socioeconomically blessed—in short, an “I can get away with anything” attitude. Beggars have nothing to lose, and choosers have nothing to prove—so both groups tend to have fewer inhibitions than the workaday compromisers in the middle. Why bring this up? Well, when Franco says he used to yearn for “people like him,” our best guess is that he was resisting the professorial types who raised him, as well as his fellow workers in fast food, because in their way both groups represent the middle ground. He seems to identify more deeply with characters like Phoenix and Reeves on both far ends of the socio spectrum, bonding on their mutual lack of inhibition. (Deftly demonstrated in Franco’s nervy request that Van Sant hand over this film footage.)

Fries With That
Franco’s aforementioned fast food experience must have haunted him as he cut the movie’s final scene, in which most of the erstwhile hustlers (besides Phoenix’s down-and-out character) have taken day jobs as fry cooks. The dialogue and pacing are so realistically mundane, they practically give a documentary feel, and Franco’s choice to use them hints at his having “been there.”

Private LA?
In addition to making the new cut out of old footage, Franco decided to exhume one of the screenplay’s rough drafts, and shoot it on Super-8 film. Ghosts is the story of two younger Chicano hustlers in LA, one of whom suffers an inconvenient affliction: narcolepsy. Nodding off at dangerous moments, George relies on his capable friend Ray to rescue him from scrapes. As in Idaho, there’s a motorcycle ride, a bathtub scene, and a creepy German older-man client (played by the original Idaho actor, Udo Kier). Although it’s very nicely shot, this script, especially when compared to Franco’s River, feels repetetive and incomplete—and hence the film presents as more of an exercise in variation and mimicry (and, incidentally, a screen test for one of Leonardo Dicaprio’s godsons) than a viable work in its own rite.

The entire tableau of youthful desperation, puppy love, gritty street b-roll and scenic splendor was a lot to take in—really almost too much—and it took Culturephile a week to chew through. But overall, self-styled film student Franco earns a gold star.

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And this is why we can’t have nice things.

I continue to participate in the #52Essays challenge, the challenge to write an essay a week for the year. I’ve been attempting to meet that goal each year since taking on the challenge in 2017. Last year was my least successful year. And yes, I could say that was because of Covid, but that would just be an easy cover. I mean, I did write less last year than I usually do, but I still wrote quite a lot. I posted 12 essays last year — half the number I posted in 2019 — but I wrote many more essays than that. Covid was part of what kept me away from this space, but it wasn’t the main thing.

I jokingly call myself the Queen of Oversharing. It’s only sometimes true. I talk a lot, and can definitely talk too much, but I don’t always share the deep stuff, expose my tender underbelly. Except on this page. For whatever reason, I often share things here that I haven’t found a way to talk about with the people I am close with.

Most of the people who read here don’t know me in person. Some of my friends and family read here, too, however. So do a few of my coworkers. And that’s fine. And it’s also strange sometimes. Strangest of all when lines blur and someone who falls into the surprise category of “strangers I know” starts reading here, starts interacting here.

And that’s what happened last year. Someone I’ve never met but to whom I am connected started reading here, started interacting here in a way that felt judgmental and mocking. And I was trying to manage being in quarantine and found that I couldn’t also manage even a quiet confrontation — couldn’t or just didn’t want to spend the energy on turning a conversation I didn’t want to have into something that wasn’t a confrontation. Instead, I chose to leave this space dormant for the better part of the year.

Which pissed me off. And made me sad. This page is one of my preferred release valves. Shutting it down because someone I didn’t want to see walked into the room wasn’t the best self-care I’ve ever practiced. If ever I needed a proven release valve, I needed one last year.

Last night I posted about my history of not settling in the places I’ve lived, posted about the fact that I am not settled in the place I currently live. And today the name of that “stranger I know” dropped into the inbox of my work email. And I had a stomach ache for the rest of the day. I don’t know if they are still reading here. But I am annoyed to find that I am still made uncomfortable by the possibility that they are.

This space is mine. These stories are mine. That person holds no power over me, and I refuse to give them the power to silence me again. If they’re reading here, they are. If they choose to share my stories with their coworkers, that’s just what will happen. All of the ways that I am ugly and flawed here are all of the ways that I am ugly and flawed in real life. Keeping myself away from this space, not posting the pieces I’ve written expressly for this space … that’s like writing lies in my diary to protect myself against someone else reading it.

Saying all of that out loud is a good reminder to me to keep standing in my truth and holding my space and, really, to hell with anyone who chooses to mock or judge me for any of it.

And this is why I will have nice things.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!


Watch the video: My Own Private Idaho. Scene Pack 720p Logoless megalink included (January 2022).