Single Take: Dane Komljen on “My Own Private Idaho”

The director of All the Cities of the North recalls watching Gus Van Sant’s beguiling drama as a young boy, on a borrowed VHS tape, while his country was descending into war, in this Single Take.


The video store was a block away from where I used to live, in a small white house behind the school, at the foot of a hill. Trees on one side, unfinished buildings on the other, red bricks and cement still left unplastered. Concrete housing blocks all around.

My homeland was falling apart and I didn’t understand much of it. It maybe wasn’t happening here, but my dad went away nonetheless, only coming back sporadically.

The images changed as well. Tapes started popping up at the store containing records of film screenings, in real cinemas, in places far away, shot on a camcorder and including the murmur of the audience, moving images washed out by distance and transposition. Both cinemas in the town were closed.

I gravitated toward the corner of the store that held my two favorite genres at the time: horror and drama. The two categories didn’t seem so dissimilar to me. They both contained the weird and the uncanny, bodies, languages, landscapes one couldn’t find in the other sections. All things foreign.

It was in the latter that I picked up My Own Private Idaho. Luckily, it was “an original,” a properly manufactured videotape. After I saw it, I felt for the first time a very strange need to press rewind and play and watch it all over again.

I didn’t know what it was that I had just seen; it didn’t make much sense. It felt like a spell, opening with the light falling on a definition in a dictionary, the film that followed was about that moment when one slips out of language, unwillingly.

What do I remember? A body sleeping on the ground. A house falling apart. Two men on a motorbike, the road and the clouds. Treeless plains. Embraces. The color blue. Magazine covers. A backpack. A campfire. The end credits that said everything had just been a quote. The funeral, the flowers, the accordion.

The trip to Italy, to somewhere else, presented in a series of tableau. Uneasy images. Neither still, nor moving.

And then there were the fishes. Jumping out of waves, sunlight refracting through the water droplets in slow-motion. Foolish and fragile, neither in the ocean nor in the air. You could see different things in how they moved. You could squint your eyes and think you were looking at yourself.

The boys, the fishes. The blue of the ocean, the blue of the sky.

Two hawks in the air—two fishes swimming in the sea not more lawless than we.*

Rewind.

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* From Pent-Up Aching Rivers, Walt Whitman

Dane Komljen is the director of All the Cities of the North, which is currently available to stream.

Single Takes are short reflections on memorable viewing experiences. Read more entries.

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