A girls’ high school, mid afternoon.
As I wait with her in the corridor for class to start, I realize with a jolt of alarm that she’s holding the love letter I wrote her. She looks down at it with a wry, amused smile, and then looks at me.
“You wrote this. This is a joke, right?”
What else am I supposed to say? My heart is pounding so hard, I’m sure she can hear it.
I’ve never been so terrified in my life.
A roadside, at night. A campfire flickers as darkness yawns around two men.
“What do I mean to you?”
“What do you mean to me? Mike, you’re my best friend,” Scott says.
“I know man, I know I’m your friend. We’re good friends and it’s good to be…good friends. That’s a good thing.”
“So I just…”
Scott looks away in sudden realisation.
“That’s ok.” Mike says, staring at the ground. “We can be friends.”
Have you ever been in love?
Unrequited love stays with you forever. Years later, you think you’ve recovered from the all-consuming, desperate yearning that shaped that part of your life. You think you’ve forgotten about the person whom you fell so hard for. Maybe they gently turned you down. Maybe they never knew. Maybe, like many queer people’s first incredibly important crushes, they were straight, and could never love you back.
You think you’ve forgotten, and yet here they are in your dreams, arriving when you least expect them, exchanging a simple hello or a glance. Or they’re simply a presence. When you wake, you’re confused. You wonder why they’re still here.
Anyone can fall in love and not have the feeling returned, but for queer people the experience is almost mandatory. This doesn’t make it any less painful.
There are many different ways to deal with a one-sided attraction, but one of the most effective is to throw yourself into distraction, to keep your mind busy, to occupy yourself with someone else’s problems. It’s no surprise that as an unhappy, lonely, gay teenager, I desperately searched for something I could identify with. When I found the world around me lacking, I turned to the world of film.
As a child, the relationships I saw onscreen did little to inspire me. Women and men engaged in hilarious misunderstandings. Women and men arguing over the fates of their children. Women and men inviting the odd gay uncle to their wedding, or politely declining the affections of an embarrassingly desperate gay admirer, or asking uncomfortable questions about queer people, indicating their own yawning lack of understanding. The way my sexuality was portrayed embarrassed me. It was a plot twist in a crime show, a comic-relief character’s affectation. It was seen as an awkward complication, a curiosity, rather than anything that could involve real love or real feeling.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I discovered LGBT movies even existed, and could be rented and watched. And it just so happened that many of these movies were incredibly sad.
A common cry among LGBT moviegoers is the desire for happier, more positive queer films—for normalcy to be depicted on screen, characters who aren’t twisting in the midst of tragedy.
While there’s an argument to be made for positivity, this claim ignores the catharsis of a tragic character. There’s nothing like a good cry over someone else’s misfortune in order to make one’s own problems seem small in comparison. While others hoped and wished and dreamed while watching happier films, I gravitated toward the tragedies. I knew they wouldn’t treat queer people like a joke.
When it came to queer tragedy, there was nothing more affecting and unusual than Gus Van Sant’s beautiful, dreamlike slice of strange Americana, My Own Private Idaho. I first heard about it reading a music magazine over a friend’s shoulder in class, seeing a short piece about River Phoenix’s role as a gay narcoleptic prostitute. I’d just seen Phoenix’s masterful turn in Stand By Me as a kid with a heart too big for his small town circumstances. I filed the title away in my head.
Two years later, I took a film unit in English. We could select any film in the entire history of cinema to discuss. I decided my need to see the film vastly outweighed any potential discomfort I might face talking to my peers and teacher about queer sex workers, so I chose My Own Private Idaho—if only to finally have a chance to see it.
It was a weird film for a sixteen-year-old to pick. A partial adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Idaho is a story about a gay sex worker with narcolepsy, desperately in love with his detached, privileged friend. It’s a dreamy trip through a country I’d never visited. It was about sex work, and I hadn’t had sex yet. It was about queer men, and I was a teenage girl.
At the same time, it spoke to something that I had experienced—the painful intensity of unrequited love. It was one of the first movies that made me cry. A sign not only of the film’s exquisite, never-ending sadness, but also of my growing ability to place myself in these films, to feel these characters’ emotions.
Mike Waters (Phoenix) is a narcoleptic hustler in Portland, on a quest to find what remains of his family. He enlists the help of his beautiful, detached friend, Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), a trust-fund kid drawn to street life not by necessity but by the desire to irritate his senator father. It’s less a story than a series of events. The two go on a road trip to find Mike’s mother. Scott and his older mentor, Bob, engage in playful Henry IV-inspired sparring. Mike is revealed to be the product of mother-son incest. Scott and Mike fly to Italy, always one step behind Mike’s mother, who ends up being the ultimate macguffin. When they arrive, it turns out she’s long gone.
The real tissue-clutching, sobbing heart of the film is Mike’s relationship with Scott. Scott looks out for Mike, making sure he is safe whenever he succumbs to a cataplectic fit. Mike, on the other hand, loves Scott, with that true, all-consuming, piercing love that queer youth know so well.
“I only have sex with guys for money,” Scott explains, when the two bed down by the side of the road in the wilderness. “And two guys can’t love each other.”
“Yeah—well, I don’t know. I could love someone, even if I wasn’t paid for it,” Mike whispers, hunched over beside the fire while Scott eyes him with concern. “And I love you, and you don’t pay me…”.
I could not have asked for a more perfect representation of the pain I was feeling. The characters were perfect, the roles of unrequited love personified. Mike, the one who loves, is all emotion, all feeling. River Phoenix plays the character as a lost soul desperate for connection. He has the sensitivity of James Dean, the youthful pain that lonely teenagers cling onto, the wounded beauty that makes you wish you could save him. He gives love because that’s all that he has to give. He’s paid to love, but when he wants to give it freely, it isn’t wanted.
And Scott? If you scoured the earth, you couldn’t have cast anyone better than Keanu Reeves—beautiful but aloof, concerned, eager to make Mike happy but unable to care in the way Mike so desperately needs. It’s easy to understand why Mike loves Scott. Wounding as it is—painful and wrenching and horrific—it’s also easy to understand why Scott cannot bring himself to stay, why he convinces himself that Mike will be OK without him. It’s easier to distance himself from his friend’s never-ending feelings.“I do love you. You know that.”
Not only does Scott not love Mike in return, he eventually abandons him.
You see the hard set in Scott’s jaw as he looks at Mike later in the film, as Mike raucously celebrates at a wake and Scott, all crisp suit and carefully selected wife, tries his hardest to ignore him. Both have found ways to deal with their pain.
My Own Private Idaho ends with Mike in the middle of nowhere, collapsed on a road. Mike knows this road. We saw him standing on this endless stretch of tarmac when the film began. It’s the same road where he and Scott had stopped to sleep, when Mike decided to tell Scott he loved him. It’s always the same road.
“This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world…”
Mike Waters suffers more than a human being could be expected to bear. Raised in poverty by an unfit mother who later abandons him, he suffers from a debilitating sleep disorder and turns to prostitution to survive. His sleep attacks stem from stress and leave him open to exploitation. He’s a character you would expect to be hardened— callous, unpleasant and violent—but Phoenix plays him as pure vulnerability.
Mike has a childlike sensibility and understanding of his problems, combined with a world-weary acceptance of the futility of his position. There’s a push-pull, a longing for stability and love and home. However, memories of childhood only bring Mike stress and anxiety.
“This is nice,” he says absently as he wanders through a client’s house, examining her kitschy knick-knacks with a youthful fascination. When the client, a middle-aged woman, approaches him for sex, he remembers his mother consoling him. He collapses to the ground.
The next day, Mike wakes in a pleasant, unfamiliar suburban neighbourhood and starts walking. He’s stopped by Hans—a travelling salesman eccentrically played by Udo Kier. “Why don’t you get in?” Hans begs, imploring Mike to enter his car. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Where do you want to go?”
“Somehow I’m forgetting a German man named Hans,” Mike says, after Scott (Keanu Reeves) has explained to him how he fell asleep in Boise and awoke in Portland. In an almost indecipherable whisper, Mike continues.
“So how much did you make off me when I was asleep?”
This mention of the true horror of Mike’s situation is so brief, and so hard to hear, that I didn’t really hear it the first time I saw the movie. Or the second. Or the third.
Mike’s mumbled aside barely escapes his mouth before it’s already gone. Everything is inward with Mike—his posture, curled and fetal. His voice a withdrawn mumble that falls back inside his body. He’s quiet because no one ever bothers to listen.
As a suburban Australian middle-class teenage girl, dutifully attending Catholic school and revelling in the security of a stable family, I was nothing like Mike Waters. My problems were minuscule compared to his. At worst, I had to contend with feeling unattractive and unpopular, achieving only acceptable grades in school no matter how hard I worked, and not having any queer people, any friends or mentors to talk to. The only thing Mike and I had in common was the shared agony of loving someone, no matter how unworthy or ill-suited they were to your affections. No matter that they’re straight and will never love you back.
For me, realising I was gay came suddenly. I was eleven. I fell in love. It was one of those crushes that seems Very Important when you’re eleven, or thirteen, or fifteen. The sort that adults doubt. She was in my classes, but we were never close friends. She was skilled at things I had no talent for and I had interests she didn’t share. I realized quickly that she would never accept or understand the stupid, irrational, all-consuming love I felt for her. I decided I wouldn’t tell her how I felt. We had so little in common. It never would have worked.
I bear her no ill-will—we were both young—but it’s strange to think that someone can be so crucial to your life, so formative, and never know how important they were to you. Sometimes I wonder what she’s doing now, but I never look. I don’t need to remind myself.
Nobody was gay in high school; as far as I knew, I was the only one. I was certainly the only one who was either brave enough or stupid enough or fed up enough of hiding to tell people about it.
Coming out so early might have made me seem confident, but it was a lonely, unsupported experience, as lonely as Mike collapsing on that Idaho road as the camera cranes away, isolating him from those in his world, and from the viewer. Even now, it’s enough to make me weep.
I doubt the happy films many queer people (understandably) desire would have afforded me anywhere near the same level of connection. The chance of someone loving me back seemed unimaginable, the sort of thing I’d have to wait years to experience. Why would I want to watch movies where people easily fell into each other’s arms, or found happiness in less than two hours, when I knew the same thing might never happen to me? Mike’s experience was a world away from mine, but his feelings were heartbreakingly familiar.
And so I stand in defense of sad cinema, of all the miserable characters who never got their happy ending. If we insist on avoiding any film that depicts a “sad queer,” we deny ourselves the chance to identify with someone vastly different from ourselves, the opportunity to feel sorrow for someone else, and gratitude that we’ll never know the same trials ourselves.
As someone whose own sadness was mundane, a pedestrian expression of what seemed like a lack of opportunity for love, rather than a world conspiring against my happiness, My Own Private Idaho offered an escape. My unhappiness was due to a lack of something good, rather than the presence of something awful. While I could identify with the searing agony of unrequited love, probably the only queer experience I could lay any claim to, Mike’s miserable life was far more awful than anything I had ever had to go through.
In a perverse way, it gave me hope—a thankful feeling that my life would be infinitely better than what I’d just seen. My troubles, while sometimes overwhelming to me, were not that bad in the grand scheme of things. I was not Mike Waters, so I would be OK.
Eight years later, I’m still OK. Twenty-four years later, Mike Waters is still on that road.