Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 20, 2012 4:43 pm 
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A chance to see a lost actor at work

James Franco was fifteen when Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho came out. He has said that it is his favorite film, it moved him, it helped shape him as a teenager. After he worked on Milk he went to see Van Sant and learned that he had kept 25 hours' worth of film footage shot at the time of My Own Private Idaho. Franco has written about the experience.

"We spent two days in Portland watching as much as we could. While we were watching, we discussed how Gus’s movies have changed in the intervening decades. His films now are much more spare in story and dialogue; they involve longer takes and fewer cuts. We were naturally led to wonder what Idaho would be like if he made the film now, and Gus offered to let me make my own cut."

Franco seems to have made three films, or maybe two that were combined. They've been shown at Toronto and put in an installation in LA at Gagasian Gallery, when Franco got Gucci to pay the cost of digitalizing the many hours of film Van Sant turned over to his use and the gallery agreed to present Franco's piece. The Gagasian installation is described in a Guardian blog, "James Franco brings River Phoenix back to life," and now appeared at the gallery across from the entrance to the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York where the Film Comment Selects series is shown. This was a shabby-chic version of an AA meeting, with scattered mismatched camp chairs and romantically tacky hanging gold and orange drapery, a table with a coffee urn and paper cups, a color film projected on a big screen at one end of the room and a small screen at the opposite end high up with a film in black and white on a monitor. (The latter turns out to be the Shakespeare material that Franco chose to leave out.)

I did not go to the Film Comment Selects' late evening event at which these were handsomely projected in their combined form on the really big screen with a Q&A by Franco at the end, because this was sold out. But I got the feeling from the faux AA meeting installation, which was one of sadness mixed with respect for the talent of River Phoenix. Van Sant's film gives us fragments of a lost life, love, hope, comical sad hustles, love and disappointment. River Phoenix delivered other notable performances. At a memorial service after his death Sidney Poitier, who worked with him on one of his films, called him "incandescent." It's surprising to see that what would seem to be a child role, Stand by Me, comes only two years before Phoenix played a precocious, gifted youth in Running on Empty, and a mere five years before the layered complexity of My Own Private Idaho.

It's interesting that James Franco has done these pieces and Van Sant let him do them. Whether or not there are more long takes in Franco's edits, Idaho was a highly improvisatory production with a lot of people hanging out and living approximations of the dissolute lives the film chronicles. (This is brought out more because Franco stressed the documentary aspect of the film footage.) Rumor had it that there were a lot of drugs and some said the atmosphere gave Phoenix a push toward the downward path (his death from an overdose came two years later). But what the extra takes and footage show of Phoenix is of him living the sensibility of his character, Mike, the narcoleptic gay street hustler. Phoenix had in some sense lived on the street, since he and his siblings reportedly entertained on the sidewalk to make money when very young, and this is how River became a performer, as a street singer and busker. We can see Phoenix turning talk about nothing into seamless rifs on Mike's sad aimlessness and longing for home and love. We can see him turning stage business over pasta at the table in Italy to an expression of his jealousy and sense of rejection. He is so expressive you hardly need the movie, or the dialogue.

In a page Franco published in The Paris Review he talks about the many alternate takes that go into any movie. Mostly the ones not used are thrown away. But "sometimes—as when they feature an actor like River Phoenix in a film like My Own Private Idaho, the best of his generation giving his best performance—every scrap is gold." So here simply we have some scraps of gold gathered by James Franco with the collaboration of the original filmmaker, Gus Van Sant.

The interest for students of acting is to see a gifted actor "in character." It's playacting so good you can't see when it starts and stops.

While the installation went on for several days, My Own Private River was a one-time event of Film Comments Selects at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center.

Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 9:00PM.
James Franco attended and participated in a post-screening Q&A.

There is a Film Comment Q&A with Franco avaiable online. Franco says Phoenix in the film (and rushes) often seems like "a cross between James Dean and Charlie Chaplin."

Visitors to "My Own Private River" installation, Walter Reade Theater Feb. 2012

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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