The Vulnerable Phoenix

Published in The Lifted Brow, March 2014. For full essay, buy a copy of the magazine.

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1. Not too long ago, at the end of the northern summer, I found myself visiting the locations of Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho in Portland, Oregon. I was in Portland on holiday. Earlier in Los Angeles I’d learned that a man I’d met five years earlier in Melbourne, a friend of a friend, was living on his family’s farm in Portland, and so I thought to look him up. When I arrived, I was alone. I visited the downtown hotel at which Gus Van Sant’s hustler characters board in the film, a fairly understated building from the Arts and Crafts period, restored in 1992 from a dilapidated condition. I walked to the bronze rendering of an elk under which a young Keanu Reeves holds in his arms a young unconscious River Phoenix. I took a photo, no

t thinking I’d show it to anyone or even look at it again myself, of the restaurant—Jake’s Famous Crawfish, with its tacky neon-lit awning—in which Keanu’s character Scotty enacts his ultimate betrayal of his fellow hustlers near the end of the film, denying to know them after his father dies and he comes into an inheritance. I even had the idea—in truth I had it before I arrived in Portland—to drive to the stretch of highway on which River Phoenix’s character Mike stands alone in the film’s opening. In that scene Mike has the sensation of déjà vu when surveying the autumnal landscape and coming to a point on the horizon where the positioning of two shrubs reminds him of a face—”a fucked up face”—he’s seen before. I’d found a website that listed details of locations used in the film, including the highway from the opening scene: Route 216, just east of the city. I’d looked into hiring a car and, deciding it was too ex

pensive, found an affordable day-long minivan tour; a “loop” from Portland out to the Columbia Gorge waterfalls and then to the snow-capped Mount Hood, the tallest mountain in Oregon. I figured the return leg would most likely go down Route 216 or a road very close, and if it was a road close, I might have the courage, if the tour group was small, to ask the guide if we might make a small detour and then if we might stop so I could step out onto the road and part my fingers in front of my eyes, as Mike does in the scene, and see if I couldn’t find that face. I understood why I wanted to be on Route 216. I was aware that, aside from my aesthetic attraction to My Own Private Idaho—to its ratty leather jackets and Shakespearean turns—I was wanting to identify with Mike’s search for acceptance. Like there would be something comforting in a pop-cultural déjà vu moment in which my own longing could be mirrored back to me by a longing made permissible by River Phoenix or Gus Van Sant or Hollywood or whatever.

2. There was more to it than that. In My Own Private Idaho River Phoenix plays a homeless, gay sex worker with narcolepsy. When Mike falls unconscious in the film, as he does many times, he leaves himself vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, to sexual explorations by others of his body.

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