Dec 24 2013

Happy holidays to one and all this Christmas week. Our gift to you? – a dose of McMenamins pop culture/Shakespearean dissertation. You're welcome.

K and RGus Van Sant filmed My Own Private Idaho (1991) in Portland as a surreal character study about the friendship between two male hustlers. It is also a retelling of Shakespeare's story of Prince Hal, who appears in Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V. Much has been made about Van Sant's seedy reframing of Shakespeare's "tavern world," as noted in an article entitled "Utopian Revisioning of Falstaff's Tavern World: Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight and Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho" by Kathy M. Howlett:  

Van Sant's 'low transformation' of Shakespeare's play met with opposition from film distributors, not because Van Sant's tavern scenes were unsavory degradations of Shakespeare's play but because they retained some vestiges of 'high culture' that might make the film unmarketable.

In other words, maybe audience-goers wouldn't "get it." But, perhaps thanks to Phoenix and Reeves, audiences did go see the film, if not understand the literary allusions within it. The film was a moderate financial success, grossing over $6.4 million in North America, eclipsing its budget of $2.5 million.

And so what's the McMenamins connection to all this? Perhaps best known is that the film premiered at the Bagdad Theater, attended by Van Sant himself. At the recent reopening of the theater, we screened the film to a large audience.

The other connection is that much of the movie was filmed in the Tavern & Pool neighborhood in NW Portland. According to, several cast and crew members, including Phoenix, Reeves and Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) lived together in a house in Portland during filming. A couple of times a week they would play music together. Due to the low budget, a typical day of shooting started at 6 am and ended at 11 pm. While no scenes were actually filmed inside Tavern & Pool, the cast used to end up there, including the two Hollywood stars themselves, creating their own "tavern world" apart from the make-believe world being recreated by Van Sant.

A former T&P manager, recalls, "When they were shooting My Own Private Idaho I used to card Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. They came in every day for a while, during the day times between shots or during lunch, while they were filming. I carded them every day on purpose, just to eff with them. They were like, 'You know who we are!' I'd go, 'Sorry fellas, I gotta see your IDs.' Just to have fun with them. I mean, they weren't much older than 21 in those days."

It is interesting to think of these two guys, acting in a dark, evocative "buddy picture," spending their time off at our pub, goofing with the staff, playing pool and having a pint or two of Hammerhead, coming down off what were probably fairly intense scenes in which to act.

During your holiday downtime in the coming weeks, maybe check out this locally made film, remember the late River Phoenix, debate Reeves' acting skills and ask yourself, "What did Keanu and Riv'r thinketh of our humble oth'rgates in NW P'rtland, quaffing flagons of ale and playing billiards amongst the hardw'rking locals?'

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