I just finished watching Dogfight, this old movie from the early 90's with River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. That was one of my favorite movies back when I was in high school. I used to rent it a lot back then, and watch it late into the night. But I've never seen it on DVD anywhere and it was by chance that I found it on Netflix, so it's been something like fifteen years since I've seen the thing.
I had liked it, originally, because River was in it and I was in love with him. But then I sort of fell in love with the movie itself. It's a very quiet little movie, and it has all these sweet awkward moments. This was also the movie where I first heard my favorite Bob Dylan song Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. That song became an obsession for a while, all on its own (and, like in the movie, my favorite time to play it over and over was at dawn).
But anyway, what was a shocker for me was that seeing it again after all this time brought back this huge tide of emotion. I could only describe it as being lovesick. Kinda like when you find a really old picture of an ex-boyfriend, or old friends that you will never see again.
I was a real romantic sort of kid back then, and I tended to idealize certain people. So it's not weird to say that River Phoenix was one of my very first loves. And I don't mean in that geeky screaming and crying for a celebrity sort of way. I never saw him as a famous person, really. It was more like I grew up with him, you know? I mean, the first time I saw him was in Stand By Me, and we were the same age, so I didn't see him as someone to have a crush on because that would be admitting I liked boys, and I wasn't ready for that (I did, however, have a crush on Kiefer Sutrherland, because he was older and sexy, so it was safe to like him).
Anyway, I'm not sure when my little crush on River started in earnest, but I do know I would try to watch all his movies, because I loved his acting. River always came off as so honest. No matter what character he was playing, he always seemed to be himself. There was this sense of feeling embarrassed by his performance, because it was like this was a guy that was actually going through whatever emotions or situations the movie called for, and sometimes it was almost like you were invading his privacy by watching. The only thing I can compare it to is watching those old Joy Division videos and thinking "Geez, this dude really means all this bleak shit he's singing about, and it's tearing him apart".
Eventually I did read up on River, and the whole love affair took off. I'd never heard of anyone who was so natural and into animal rights (this was before I got burnt out on that shit in college, obviously). I had this black and white picture of him on my wall right next to a picture of The Pixies and a little picture of Plaza Navona in Italy. So every night for years, those were the things I fell asleep staring at. In the picture he had shoulder length hair falling on his face, and he looked like some sad beautiful angel.
He died when I just started college. I heard about it at the mall, while looking at some earrings in Dillards. This guy I'd gone to the mall with mentioned nonchalantly that he had died of an overdose the day before, and wasn't that just the funniest thing, considering that he was a Vegan and whatever? He was about to laugh, but then he saw the look on my face and asked me what my fucking problem was, it was just another dumb actor that died. Then he did laugh, but this time it was directed at me, because my eyes got all watery. I remember feeling weird because I had had a crush on the guy and this was some sort of date, but even though I didn't want him to think I was ridiculous for getting all upset for the death "of another dumb actor" I couldn't help it.
That day after getting home I went to my room and looked at the picture of River on the wall and wondered what the hell to do. Idolize him as another dead celebrity? At the time, his death was kind of controversial, because people saw him as a hypocrite for always talking about living a pure life then dying of a drug overdose like a dirty junkie. But I didn't want to tear his picture down, and I didn't think he let me down or anything. In the end, I was just really sad. He was such a tremendous talent, and he was MINE, meaning someone of my generation, that was supposed to stand for me and people my age as an artist. I guess that's why a lot of people felt let down, but that was so unfair. All I could focus on was that he was gone, and I would never see him grow up with me and see what he would do with characters that would go through the same situations I would go through, years and years later.
That was such a long time ago. It's years and years later, and he is so much younger than I am now, and he'll always be. Not fair. It was so weird to remember what it was like to watch that movie, back when he was alive and I was younger than he was, and I could look up to him, because I did.
Well, anyway. I recommend Dogfight. It's still a sweet, quiet and awkward little movie, and it's amazing the way River could play a character so full of hurt. When he comes back from the war in the last scene, he has this look on his face that is so broken. You can tell that in the four years he was off in Vietnam he's seen and lived a lifetime's worth, and now he's just so tired. Wow. How could he do that? He was something like 19 years old. It was almost like he knew he didn't have that long.
But maybe I'm just being corny, I don't know. All I know is I loved River, and seeing him again after all this time made me miss all the movies I could have seen with him. Funny, I did end up seeing The Pixies live, and I did end up going to Italy and sitting at the Plaza Navona. But I never got to see River Phoenix again. He'll always be just that black and white picture of a young guy with shoulder length hair and a sad look on his face. Another dead, beautiful angel.