On Sunday 9 December the ICA Cinema will hold a screening of James Franco's My Own Private River - the first time the film has been publicly exhibited in the UK.
The project has a rather idiosyncratic history: whilst working with Gus Van Sant on the set of Milk (2008), in which he had been cast in the role of Scott Smith, Harvey Milk’s lover and campaign manager, Franco seized the opportunity to ply the director with questions about My Own Private Idaho (1991) – his self-professed favourite film - the subject of River Phoenix and his landmark performance being a particular point of fascination.
Phoenix’ career was notoriously cut short by his death at the age of twenty-three, the result of a drugs overdose outside the Los Angeles Viper Club on the eve of Halloween, 1993, but his acclaimed performances in Idaho, as well as Stand By Me (1986) and Running on Empty (1988) immortalized him in Hollywood history and his troubled star persona remains a continual point of interest, Phoenix often considered the best acting talent of his generation.
After filming on Milk had wrapped, Franco went to stay with Van Sant in Portland, where they re-visited many of the original Idaho shooting locations. Whilst touring the city the director revealed that he had kept all of the raw dailies from the shoot, now nearly twenty years old, amounting to over twenty-eight hours of unused footage. A couple of months later Franco returned to Portland and the pair spent two days holed-up in a screening room watching the raw film reels, discussing the possibility of utilising this footage to create a new cut, or multiple new edits, of the original film. Van Sant’s directorial style had shifted dramatically since My Own Private Idaho, notably after being introduced to the works of Hungarian filmmaker Belá Tarr (Werkmeister Harmonies, Sátántangó, The Turin Horse), under whose influence he adopted a more spare, pared-down aesthetic approach – stripping away much of the dialogue and narrative arcs in favour of the long, drawn-out takes that would characterise later works such as Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005). Franco became enthused with the idea of cutting the unused Idaho footage in this style, through the lens of a Tarr-influence Van Sant, and with the director’s blessing digitized the collection of unearthed film stock and set to work.
The result was My Own Private River, which emerges not so much a re-edit or alternative version of Van Sant’s film, but more a haunting and infatuated document of River Phoenix the actor, brought back to life through weathered archival footage. Phoenix, who suffered from severe dyslexia and often struggled with scripted lines, employed method acting techniques in his work – staying in character for lengthy periods of time and heavily improvising his screen performances. It is these improvisations that form the bulk of Franco’s film: captured moments of Phoenix simply existing within the character he has embodied – the drug-addled teenage street hustler Mike Waters – whilst the cameras rolled. One of the film’s stand out-scenes, recorded in a single lengthy take, simply follows Phoenix as he stalks around a Portland supermarket, strung-out, snatching loafs of bread and startling fellow shoppers with erratic exclamations. The camera remains a few paces behind Phoenix throughout, documenting his spontaneous movements and reactions to the environment – it’s a dynamic piece of uninhibited acting.
Due to the raw and weathered nature of the dailies’ - rough film stock used as a reference point during a film’s working edit before the negatives are properly processed - the viewer is distanced from the fictional narrative that became My Own Private Idaho, constantly reminded of the constructed nature of the images presented on screen, of the technical processes at work in their recording: there are lens flares and scratched frames; shots are frequently out-of-focus, under- or over-exposed; the framing continually re-adjusted; the soundtrack is muffled and distorted and occasionally cuts out altogether. Franco’s film ultimately reveals itself to be a poetic documentary on River Phoenix, a performer at the height of his powers in the role that would prove to be his most lasting - it’s both a fascinating cinephilic exercise and moving portrait of a lost talent.