The more I hurt, the less I feel.
The more I know, the less I rest
In this lone star state of mind.
—River Phoenix, “Lone Star State of Mind”
The Thing Called Love (1993) is perhaps best remembered as River Phoenix’s final film. The Director’s Cut DVD is largely a tribute to its young leading man. In “Our Friend River,” one of three featurettes, Peter Bogdanovich wishes that four minutes of additional Phoenix footage were in the film. He and the cast repeatedly recall the actor’s sweetness, his talent, and his devotion to his work. “He was Huckleberry Finn,” says Bogdanovich in “The Thing Called Love: A Look Back.” “He was a sweet, barefoot boy.”
Bogdanovich notes that Phoenix approached him about the role, citing his admiration of The Last Picture Show (1971) and his desire to sing in a film. His participation had a clear impact: Bogdanovich cast Dermot Mulroney and Anthony Clark on his recommendation, and Samantha Mathis signed on in part for the opportunity to work with him. In his commentary, Bogdanovich notes that he and the cast revised the script even during filming, working on scenes until they “felt right.” As a result, the film is uneven, but emotionally resonant. In many ways, it is a country-music version of Reality Bites (1994), a Gen-X tale of a young woman “finding herself,” complicated by a love triangle with sweet, devoted Kyle (Mulroney) and sexy bad boy James (Phoenix).
Miranda (Mathis) comes to Nashville from New York to chase her dream of becoming a country songwriter. At the Bluebird Cafe (a real Nashville locale), she meets fellow wannabes James, Kyle, and Linda Lue (Sandra Bullock). They endure weekly auditions at the cafe, where the owner Lucy (country singer K.T. Oslin) scrawls “yes” or “no” in huge letters across their applications. “If I didn’t pick you, it just means I don’t think you’re ready,” she soothes. Lucy acts as gatekeeper, determining who will make it in the singular environment of the country music capitol.
The film’s version of Nashville is both aggressively friendly and invasively candid. “Country music tries its best to be honest with itself,” Lucy counsels Miranda. “When it’s sad, it says it’s sad.” Outwardly concerned only with her career, Miranda is also (we learn later) dealing with her father’s recent death. Lucy’s observation leaves her momentarily speechless, our first indication that she isn’t the hard-edged New Yorker she pretends to be.
As Bogdanovich discusses in his commentary, one of the film’s strengths is its use of silence. Linda Lue tenderly watches Kyle perform, the only hint of her feelings for him. James slouches against his truck, silently regarding Miranda. “What?” she snaps. “I’m just looking at you in blue,” he answers finally. It’s clear from the charged silence between them and the easy conversation between Miranda and Kyle which relationship will be tumultuous and which will be without passion.
On their first date, James and Miranda watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance from the bed of James’s truck and write a song about it. “They love the same girl, she’s undecided,” Miranda sings. “Looks like Jimmy and Johnny will fight before long.” Like country music, the film sticks with tried-and-true material. “It’s the oldest story in the book,” James remarks. This incarnation of the “oldest story,” however, is unusual in that Miranda’s romance is least important in her development. When she does finally “find” her song, she does so without the help of either of her men. The film’s most romantic aspect is Miranda’s devotion to her writing: she spends her nights with her notebook, downing coffee in a diner while rain pours down outside.
In Reality Bites, the 20-somethings feel abandoned, without role models or worthy causes. Music speaks to their alienation. Music in The Thing Called Love, by contrast, ushers the kids toward a safe “past” they may have never known. Strangers to Nashville, they are playacting at being cowboys and girls (“Let’s go, little doogies,” says Linda Lue. “Dogies,” Kyle corrects her). Country music provides a roadmap, guiding the characters away from disillusionment and toward a simpler, more straightforward way of life. “That’s what I love about country music,” says Kyle. “There’s no sarcasm. It makes you laugh or it makes you cry.”
This earnest country music scene in Nashville is small enough for the kids to stake their sense of place, building on what they understand as its “traditions.” Kyle tells Miranda of a “grand old Nashville tradition” in which one must go to the top of a building and “tell the whole damn town you don’t plan to leave.” When James mocks Miranda for believing him, she responds, “Traditions have to start somewhere.” Casting themselves as Nashville’s next generation, they’re also making up new traditions.
The Thing Called Love was not well received, and looking at it again, it’s plainly unpolished. Nonetheless, as Bogdanovich says, the film does have a cult following: “Some people like it, and some people like it a lot.” That following (of which I am a member) is attracted to the film’s exploration of love of all sorts, between friends, between lovers, and for one’s work. In an interview included on the new DVD, Phoenix gazes off-camera, recalling that when he was younger, he was cynical about love stories. “In my old age,” he jests, “I have found a soft spot in myself, and I just think that the story has a lot of sweet things about it.” Though the film may not hold up under intense scrutiny, it is sweet.