Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video

By Lynda E. Boose; Richard Burt | Go to book overview

15

THE FAMILY TREE MOTEL

Subliming Shakespeare in My Own Private Idaho

Susan Wiseman


SHAKESPEARE IN IDAHO

Where is “Shakespeare” in My Own Private Idaho? Who, what or where is the work undertaken by the bard or the shadows of the bard? This is the question this essay poses. The director, Gus Van Sant, has asserted that “the reason Scott's like he is is because of the Shakespeare, and the reason Shakespeare is in the film is to transcend time, to show that these things have always happened, everywhere” (Fuller 1993:xlii). This seems more like a retrospective claim for the transcendent qualities of Shakespeare than a consideration of the specific place of the Henry IV plays in the film. What place do the Shakespearean sections claim, and what implications do they have for the way the film organizes its subjects and viewers? In finding Shakespeare in the film this essay aims to tease out some of the implications of the film, concentrating on paternity and the family tree, visual versus verbal signifiers and the uncanny/sublime as these are deployed through the narrative.

It does not take much probing to find that Idaho is dealing with-or stylishly commodifying-some of the Big Questions of contemporary culture; questions around the family, paternity, place, home, maternity, sexuality, status and all the elements of the masculine filmic Bildungsroman. Since the fatal overdose of one of the film's two stars, the twenty-three year old River Phoenix, it is as if Phoenix and the film have become reciprocally “about” one another. Phoenix's death, as well as his acting style, his work on the script (Van Sant describes him working “furiously” on the fireside scene) and the improvised style of the scenes where the groups of boys discuss their lives seem to refer the film back to a social world and to substantiate Van Sant's claim that those parts of the film “come directly from a number of people that I've known”, “I'm not being analytical” (Fuller 1993:xli).

But Idaho is also full of textual markers and pointers; “Shakespeare” is far from the only cultural marker in the film. It is richly intertextual-not to say overbearingly knowing-in its deployment of cultural references from popular culture to quasi-Freudian symbolism (for example the “family metaphor” that

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Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Plates vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Totally Clueless? 8
  • Notes 20
  • 2 - Race-Ing Othello, Re-Engendering White-Out 23
  • Notes 41
  • 3 - War is Mud 45
  • 4 - Top of the World, Ma 67
  • Notes 78
  • 5 - Popularizing Shakespeare 80
  • Notes 93
  • 6 - Shakespeare Wallah and Colonial Specularity 95
  • Notes 102
  • 7 - Poetry in Motion 103
  • References 119
  • 8 - When Peter Met Orson 121
  • References 134
  • 9 - In Search of Nothing 135
  • References 146
  • Stage Performances of King Lear Cited 147
  • 10 - A Shrew for the Times 148
  • Films and Videos Discussed 168
  • 11 - Shakespeare in the Age of Post-Mechanical Reproduction 169
  • References 185
  • 12 - Grossly Gaping Viewers and Jonathan Miller's Othello 186
  • 13 - Age Cannot Wither Him 198
  • Notes 213
  • 14 - Asta Nielsen and the Mystery of Hamlet 215
  • References 224
  • 15 - The Family Tree Motel 225
  • References 239
  • 16 - The Love That Dare Not Speak Shakespeare's Name 240
  • References 267
  • Index 269
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