Please note that this text contains spoilers.
Here is River Phoenix; stranded, shuffling, sleepy-eyed. Take note of his smooth, high forehead and his sweet boyish chin. Watch as he hollers and swaggers. This show of unfazed machismo cannot hide the fact that he’s as defenceless and vulnerable as the rabbit who lopes away from the road in fright. This boy is named Mike and he doesn’t know where he is or why he’s there. Clouds roil overhead in the purpling sky. The highway stretches onwards. This American landscape is blank and hostile.
Remember this location. We’ll be back.
Now watch as Mike is suddenly betrayed by his own body. Convulsing and twitching, he slowly drops to the ground. He is a narcoleptic, a character trait which informs the rhythm of his surrounding film. Mike’s attacks come upon him suddenly and he regularly wakes up in a new and disorientating place. This lends an unusual structure to the movie, which smash cuts it way through different locations, time periods, tones.
But first, the opening credits.
Most people now automatically associate the words My Own Private Idaho with the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s. Yet what does that title really mean? The phrase is never once said within the movie.
The colourful title cards slotted throughout the film tell us that that stretch of highway we encounter at the beginning of the film, the one as familiar as a ‘fucked-up face’, is located in Idaho. The phrase itself has its origin in a song by the B-52s, a band, let’s not forget, in which four of the five founding members identified as gay or bisexual.
If you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, one’s “own private Idaho” sounds like it could mean an idealised space, a self-made mental sanctuary. Pay attention to the lyrics though, and the song reveals something much more insidious.
You're livin' in your own Private Idaho, Idaho
You're out of control, the rivers that roll
You fell into the water and down to Idaho
Get out of that state
Get out of the state you're in
Your own private Idaho is an unhealthy mental state. It’s a paranoiac frame of mind. It’s one we shouldn’t linger in for too long.
Poor Mike is returned to that stretch of highway again and again.
“I've been on this road before.”
We’re back on that same road. It’s halfway through the film and this time Mike is not alone. Scott (Keanu Reeves) is with him, attempting to kickstart his motorcycle and only half listening as Mike continues:
“This is my road. Looks like a fucked-up face.Like it's saying, 'Have a nice day" or something. See what I mean, Scott?”
Scott doesn’t see, or he doesn’t want to see. He continues this refusal into the next scene, perhaps the most pivotal in the film. It is the scene where the two boys sit in front of a crackling fire, the location where Mike admits he’s in love with Scott.
It almost hurts to watch Mike squirm this confession of love out of himself, to see the physical effort it takes. He begins by circling around the issue, hinting and feinting and then backing off, willing his companion to take the lead. It isn’t until Scott’s quiet, assured statement that he only has sex with men for money and that “two guys can't love each other” that Mike’s reserve cracks and he lets his honest feelings out, halting yet definite.
“Well, I - I don't know. I mean -I mean, for me… I could love someone even if I... you know, wasn't paid for it. I love you and…. you don't pay me.”
Throughout this exchange, Scott is looking directly at Mike, while Mike stares down into the fire. Watch River Phoenix’s body as he twists it in on himself, wrapping hand around knee, drawing himself up close and small. It’s worth remembering that this exquisite scene was improvised almost entirely by Phoenix. On the page, his character was initially written as straight. Phoenix wanted to complicate it. How queer.
At the film’s close, we are, of course, back on that same stretch of road. It isn’t a scene of redemption or of reunion. For many queer people, our lives cannot be conceived of as linear. Many of the usual milestones of normal society are meaningless, or mislabelled, or simply fall out of chronology. After all he has been through, Mike has ended up right back where he started from.
Before we are truly finished, however, a final title-card: Have a nice day.
The phrase rings obviously hollow. The world can be brutal to beautiful boys with smooth, high foreheads, especially those with queer confessions to make. But watch River Phoenix, one final time. He is beautiful. And this, more than perhaps any other factor, is why we return, helplessly, to My Own Private Idaho.
- by Catherine O'Sullivan