"The Vulnerable Phoenix", by Adam Curley


Illustration by Lashna Tuschewski.


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 there 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, not 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 deja 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 expensive, found an affordable daylong 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 deja 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.

3. I once had a brief encounter (a fling?) with an older man who enjoyed giving massages that led to sex. There’s a genre (a fetish?) of gay pornography that features guys being massaged and subtly, and then not so subtly, molested. The massages were real: I’d lie on my stomach on his bed, immobile, while he kneaded my muscles, asking where the tight spots were. What was about to happen was unspoken, talked around; it was, in essence, role-playing. In the game, I was unsuspecting and vulnerable to his advances. After a few go-arounds of this, when the game became obvious to me, I lost interest. I find this kind of game (this fling? This fetish?) appealing up to the point when the man being massaged becomes engaged, when the one who is physically vulnerable becomes complicit in the act. 

4. In certain parts of gay culture there’s an ascribed difference between ‘bottoms’ and ‘power bottoms’. Apart from describing different sexual activities, this seems to aim to address social disparity between ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’, and perhaps even a social disparity between masculine and feminine roles. Those who are ‘receivers’ are given more power by the addition of the prefix ‘power’ to the role’s title. But it still leaves those who are sexually ‘passive’ on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The passive are left ultimately vulnerable. Is this a prejudice or a necessity?

5. River Phoenix’s birth name was River Jude Bottom.

6. The first time River Phoenix appears on screen in My Own Private Idaho his character is vulnerable: he’s alone on a highway. There are no cars and he has no transportation. Hitchhikers are inherently vulnerable; passengers are inherently vulnerable; pedestrians are vulnerable in the presence of cars or even roads without cars; humans without shelter are vulnerable. His identity, or his claim to it, is also vulnerable: he is wearing a shirt with an embroidered nametag – “Bob.” River’s character is Mike, not Bob. Bob Pigeon, it’s learned later in the film, is the name of the robust father figure to the group of hustlers who revolve around the Governor Hotel. Mike’s identity at the opening of the film is either misplaced or the property of another, or both. When he looks at the landscape he mumbles, in the way he mumbles throughout the film, sometimes barely discernable, “I always know where I am by the way the road looks.” Except, Mike doesn’t know where he is, only that he’s “been here before, one fucking time before, you know that?”


This is an extract from The Lifted Brow #21: The Sex Issue. Click here to buy your copy and read the rest!