Resurrecting River Phoenix

One day, I must have been around ten years old, my mother came home with a bag full of books that she’d picked up from a sale at a book store. There were two series of books; one about a young guy who always got into trouble when taking care of other people’s pets; and another about two twin brothers in their early teens witch telepathic abilities who solved different kinds of crimes and mysteries. The former was just as bland as it sounds, and didn’t really catch my attention. Looking back, however, I would credit the series about the twin detectives – Amazon tells me the series was simply called the Twin Collection, and written by Adam Mills – for getting me started with reading by myself. Of course, my mom had read for me and my brother when we were kids, but I still felt that these kinds of mystery novels meant I was stepping up my game a little. It wasn’t as old-fashioned as the Hardy boys series, and I immediately connected with how the two protagonists were twins.

I read all ten books repeatedly, and to this day, I can recall central plot points. And, regardless of whether I dreamt of someday becoming a real writer myself, or simply because I was so immersed in the universe that I refused to let go by the end of the final book, I starting my own clumsy attempts at writing stories based on the characters. I’ve never had neither the patience, the discipline nor the creative imagination to sustain a fictional narrative beyond the establishment of a paper-thin premise (let’s give me three paragraphs, to be generous), so naturally, I was quickly back to the ten original books again. But even today, I respect that urge to create fictional environments where we could find and live out parts of ourselves that our everyday life doesn’t allow for. Me, I wanted to be like the brainy yet socially well-adjusted Ryan Taylor of the books, not just because he constantly found himself in the middle of exciting suspense plots, but because he knew how to talk to girls (when you’re as shy as I was at that age, it didn’t matter if deep down, I actually really wanted to be friends with this guy who was a grade above me.) I haven’t read any of the books since I was 12 (the didn’t come with me when I moved to another part of the country when I was 13), but regardless of whether I’d like them today or not, the represented a perfect piece of literary escapism at a time when I really needed it.

Perhaps because of my failed attempts at expanding the Twin Collection universe into stories of my own, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of fan fiction. I you really love something, I find the impulse to make up stories to postpone or subvert the intended end point to a series or a character arc only natural. (Fan fiction has a raunchy stepbrother in slash fiction, a phenomenon said to have originated with Star Trek fans who began writing erotic stories based on the perceived homoerotic subtext of the relationship between Kirk and Spock.) But fan fiction doesn’t have to be contained to the realm of literature. Apart from logistical, and some copyright reasons, there’s no reason why movie lovers couldn’t do the same,

And there has been examples of movie fans who have played around with movie characters in similar ways, from the multple re-enactments and alternative storylines of the Star Wars universe in display in the DVD-ready documentary The People vs. George Lucas, to fan editions of popular movies. It is said to be circulating an edition of the Matrix trilogy on the internet that some say is better than the original three film series, because it unsentimentally hacks away the parts in the latter two films that undermined what the first movie had set up. But these are examples of working with an existing product to make it better. What happens if you take a fictional character out of the movie he was originally in, and instead of trying to revive him as a fictional force within another movie, you try to show us how he would have behaved outside of the constraints of a narrative?

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, that’s close to what actor/all-around wonderboy James Franco did with a project he premiered in March. Franco, long a professed fan of Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (which happens to be one of my favorite movies too, and one I wrote about here), got hold of hours of raw material from the shooting of Idaho, and now he has edited a film that shows the late River Phoenix, who played the narcoleptic, gay hustler Mike in the movie, staying in character, offering further glimpses into Mark’s character. It’s not fan fiction, since Franco could not make things up, or creative a narrative from his own mind. But it captures the essence of what we were longing for, when we tried to write new stories; that things wouldn’t be over just yet. And maybe it isn’t, even though the movie is twenty years old, and River Phoenix died many years ago.  Here’s how The Guardian presents Franco’s new film:

Van Sant shot hours of footage of his actors doing little more than living out their characters’ lives, and this forms the backbone of Franco’s re-edit. There’s a basic structure, as we follow Mike Waters around Portland, Oregon, shopping at a grocery store, scoring drugs and having sex with clients, but there’s no real narrative on offer.

But by doing even that, Franco and van Sant have given us so much more. I haven’t seen Franco’s movie, although I’d love to, but the thought itself is positively mind-boggling. Here you have not only the angelic Mike Waters of My Own Private Idaho, the emotional center of one of the seminal movies of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early ’90s; you have, if you will, the resurrection of the man who gave life to him in the first place. River Phoenix, the Leonardo DiCaprio of his time, died just two years later from a drug overdose,  and it’s that sense that we’ve been given another lease on his life that makes this project so endlessly fascinating, without taking away the ever-present hint of sadness . From the new footage we may gain insights into what he brought to Idaho that never made it into the final movie, and the most optimistic of us will look for clues to what kind of an actor he could have become if he had gotten to live. But in the end, even getting more of River Phoenix feels like something of a loss, for those very reminders of what could have been. It could of course be that the project itself leaves audiences with a different feeling, but from hearing of it on an ideas level, I expects moment of both joy and melancholy.

Of course, Phoenix’ career and central performances cannot be completely separated from his tragic fate. That’s why one scene from Stand By Me (1986), featuring my favorite Phoenix performance, has always moved me so deeply: Chris Chambers (Phoenix) talks to his best friend Gordie (Wil Wheaton) about their troubled friend Teddy. Teddy has a rough temperate and an abusive father. “He won’t live to be 20.” (paraphrase) River Phoenix died when he was 23.

We can’t have him back, but we can remember what he meant and what could have been. That is the theme of the beautiful poem If River Phoenix Had Lived, by my great friend Bryan Borland (reprinted with permission):


When I saw you inmovies after Stand by Me
it was like you’d been resurrected,
though it felt like I was cheating the universe,
that I wasn’t supposed to watch you grow older.
When you first disappeared to a haunting instrumental
of that title song, Imourned you. The second time,
I’d been robbed again, your beautiful face
crushed against the LA pavement
while a thunderstormplayed paparazzi
and punk angels sang you to sleep.
If you had lived, your home would be lined with
golden statuettes. I picture themweeping
fromroles others have played,
a gay cowboy or tragic rock god.
The internet is a viper, room
for a photograph of your open casket
and stories of those thieving seizures.
I’ll remember you as Chris Chambers,
walking away, vanishing fromsight,
nevermore perfect than at twelve years old,
Jesus, is anyone?

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4 Responses to Resurrecting River Phoenix

  1. Jessie carty says:

    Somehow I missed out on seeing “my private Idaho” but river Phoenix is someone I have always loved as an actor. I can’t watch “running on empty” without crying my eyes out. I didn’t know about the Franco project but I’m intrigued and I just added “howl” to my Netflix list :)

    • queerlefty says:


      first I have to apologize for not commenting enough on your blog. I read it regularly, and I mean to make my presence known more often. I’ll try to better myself.
      “My Private Idaho” is my second favorite River film, after “Stand By Me”. It’s kind of a “challenging” film, in that’s full of narrative starts and stops, but its core story of a young gay man in search of his lost mother is simply enough. River is excellent as the sexy yet vulnerable hustler, and the movie plays to the limited acting chops of Keanu Reeves in his role as a playboy. Everytime I see it, I am also reminded of the many gaping holes in my classical education, as I have not read the Shakespeare it’s loosely based on. It also has the dazzling camera work and energetic style typical of early Gus van Sant, it’s a real treat, and probably among my top 30 favorites movies of all time.

      I liked “Howl” very much. A part of me feared that it would end up as yet another stale court-room drama, since we know the end of the proceedings, but the movie is narrated on three levels – animated visualizations of the titular poem, dramatized Ginsberg interviews with Franco as Ginsberg, and the case itself – that makes sure that there’s never a dull moment. The beautiful Franco makes a wonderful Ginsberg.

  2. jay says:

    Thanks for that , I’d love to see that , sounds so interesting . I remember maybe 8 yrs ago I went to a Bruce Weber show and he had shot some film with River and Keanu , just black and white and you could watch the film while looking at all his photographs .

    I’m amazed at what James Franco gets up , I’m sure he just wrote a book too .

    • queerlefty says:

      He did, Jay. I think it was a book of short stories. His versatility in all manners of arts, and the enthusiasm and determination with which he pursues everything that interests him, is what makes me love Franco. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also gorgeous.

      I’m intrigued by the show that you mentioned, which sounds a little like the thing Franco and van Sant has got going now. I really want to see this new project, but living in Norway, I suppose that’s out of the question. But I’ll always have the memories of River, and the performances he gave. I remember that I was sad when I learned that he’d died, not because I knew much of who he was or had seen him in any movies, but because I’ve always – even at the age of 8 – felt it so deeply unfair when young people’s lives are cut short like that. He had so many great movies left in him.

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