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Great Moments in Gayness: Their Own Private Campfire

Team Experience is celebrating Gay Pride with their favorite moments in gay cinema... Here's Craig (of 'Take Three' fame) on a certain seminal early 90s trip..Happy Gay Pride Weekend Everyone!

The open road and the “messed-up” faces along the way are what haunt lost hustler Mike (River Phoenix) most in My Own Private Idaho. In Gus Van Sant’s seminal 1991 gay road movie Mike trips through narcoleptic encounters with both male and female clients, Wizard of Oz-style barns crashing to the ground, talking porno mag covers, tableaux vivants sex scenes and Shakespeare’s Henry IV. His is an eventful, hardscrabble life filled with grit and longing. Each scene arouses memorable moments that every Idaho fan — gay, bi, straight or whatever it takes to have a nice day — surely still carries with them.

The most hopelessly romantic moment in the film and one of its best scenes is Mike’s campfire stopover. Somewhere out there on the prairie, in their very own private corner of Idaho, Mike and his ‘prince’ Scott (Keanu Reeves) make a fire and hunker down for the night. The prairie is dark and the fire’s embers glow like Mike’s unrequited feelings. He wants to set his spurs a-jinglin’, so ventures a question

I’d like a talk with you. I’d like to, uh, really talk with you.”

The way Phoenix coyly shares his feelings arouses familiar echoes of eternally unreciprocated desire. That's a commonplace scenario in gay cinema, but one that Phoenix renders extra special. Mike exhibits the shy neediness that often comes with the territory. But he can’t reign in his feelings for Scott any longer. His courage nonplusses Scott, who shifts position (out of discomfort?) "I only have sex with a guy for money... two guys can’t love each other,” he asserts being purely ‘gay for pay’. “It’s good to be good friends... that’s a good thing,” Mike agrees, resignedly.

Mike’s ‘queer eye for the straight guy’ is temporarily fogged. Squatting almost into a ball, he pokes idly at the fire. His downcast eyes can’t meet Scott’s gaze out of a likely fear of seeing rejection in his expression. But, what the hell! Mike goes for broke:

I could love someone, even if I, you know, wasn’t paid for it. I love you and… you don’t pay me.”

These are the most heartbreaking eighteen words spoken in the film. They are small words, softly spoken, but filled with real pain. It’s the crux of the matter and the line that connects these two shabby street dudes. And here is Mike risking his world slipping off its axis.

Hurrah for him and his vagabond vanguard ways! Of course, it transpires that it’s not to be. The scene ends with comfort, bonding, friendship — but not the heart swell Mike craves. He wants a life of reaching for forever, with Scott by his side. Alas, Van Sant’s story is one of fierce solitude imposed on the boundless wanderers of the world and so the road to romance gets blocked. But for a moment it’s flushed with a warm connection. We’ve all been there, Mike. Another time, eh?

Wherever, whatever, have a nice day.

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Reader Comments (15)

wow. heartbreaking post. honest and true. Thanks!

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTomas

This was a very fine movie... I think River was a terrifically talented young actor .. he would have acted in great movies had he lived ..

I thoroughly enjoyed your post ...

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Tomas/Rick — Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it. I often think about what kind of films/roles Phoenix might have gone on to do. He had so much potential and was a tremendous talent. MOPI was probably one of his very best films.

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

i think this is maybe the single worst Oscar snub for men in the 90s. He was better than the best actor nominees that year even if it was a pretty strong year in the actual lineup.

love this scene especially so thanks for highlighting it

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

That scene is so real and heartbreaking- specially looking at it now. The loss of River Phoenix is a real tragedy.

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

"i think this is maybe the single worst Oscar snub for men in the 90s."


June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Oh, just reading those 18 words is breaking my heart all over again -- such an amazing scene and performance. The truth of it nails the entire move down, even when its other parts don't click, or are alienatingly artificial.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterarf she said

I remember when it was all over and the credits started to roll that I actually had to put my head down on the seat in front of me. It was that overwhelming. I've never revisited the movie again for fear that I would not feel about it the way I did the first time.

It's amazing how...silent.."My Own Private Idaho" is and yet, the little dialogue it has is, either, totally hilarious, cryptically symbolic or simply heartbreaking. It's really important to remember how the extraordinarily talented River Phoenix owned this scene because he created it -- he felt this emotional depth was needed to bind the audience to the character Mike's sense of loss and search for home. He instinctively knew this and his brand of raw, emotional expression was a perfect fit for the aesthetic of Van Sant and spirit of this film.

He also connected to Keanu in a way that nurtured his talents, too and it's possibly Keanu Reeves best work in MOPI. Personally -- and I say this without one hint of hyperbole -- I think River Phoenix was the most talented actor ever. Really. Something about that medium and his natural talent was such a perfect fit.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

Neat Website, Keep up the fantastic work. Thanks for your time

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdesain rumah

It's really important to remember how the extraordinarily talented River Phoenix owned this scene because he created it -- he felt this emotional depth was needed to bind the audience to the character Mike's sense of loss and search for home. He instinctively knew this and his brand of raw, emotional expression was a perfect fit for the aesthetic of Van Sant and spirit of this film.

May 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHappy fathers day

this is a very nice ideas..

December 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkartik

This is really a great website.Feeling lucky to get onto it.

January 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDebarpan

That scene, those words, that is the saddest, most painful, yet most beautiful declaration of unrequited love ever portrayed in film... River was just a phenomenal, fearless actor, and Keanu was so incredibly good as well! This is absolutely one of my favourite films, I loved it first time I saw it as a 14 years old, even when all my friends hated it for the gay theme and wouldn't watch it with me (most teenaged girls simply refused to accept gorgeous River Phoenix and super sexy action heroe Keanu Reeves as homosexual hustlers) not me, I loved it, it was so painfully beautiful, so poetic, so surrealist. It didn't open in theatres in Venezuela, and it only came to Bluckbuster about two years after it was released, right before River's passing. Martha Plimpton dreamed to have that kind of on screen chemestry with River, half of it might have saved That Thing Called Love... by far one the best films of the 90's!

March 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Really this scene is so real and heartbreaking- specially looking.

By Looking it at now i remembered some scene that i also spent with my family.

Thanks for sharing the info.....................

April 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames Bond
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