James Franco was at the Hollywood Theatre yesterday, screening My Own Private River, his feature length, River Phoenix-centric, remix of My Own Private Idaho outtakes. Not eligible for theatrical release (due to copyright issues, I am guessing), James Franco and Gus Van Sant presented the film personally, as a fundraising event, to a theater packed with grateful, eager film nuts.
My Own Private River tells the story of Mike Waters, the narcoleptic street hustler whose brother might be his father, whose his best friend won’t be his lover, and who seems to be, like the Johnny Depp character in Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, a walking dead man. More sentimental than My Own Private Idaho, My Own Private River jettisons the Prince Hal plotline, and Scott (Keanu Reeves) only appears around the edges, in scenes which serve as markers of Mike’s decline.
To get the most obvious question out of the way, My Own Private River does stand on its own as a feature length film. I cannot speak to what the experience would be like for someone who had not seen My Own Private Idaho (or who has seen it 20 times, as Franco has) but for me, this odd scramble of rejected footage felt like a real movie, mostly because of the power of Phoenix’ performance, which I imagine was exactly the point Franco was trying to make when he proposed the project to Van Sant.
Van Sant granted permission to Franco on the condition that if he (Van Sant) didn’t like the result, it would never be seen.
But he liked it. And now Franco’s exploration of River Phoenix’ performance permanently raises the bar for film scholars everywhere. The outtakes he drew from include scenes which made it into My Own Private Idaho as well as ones which never did, such as a outdoor love scene with a fellow street rat (female), a dinner table scene where Mike wordlessly editorializes on the bad manners of Scott and his new Italian girlfriend, and a hot dog vending scene where Mike discovers, after coming back from Italy, that his street rat friends (male) now have jobs. Franco’s goal, to re-tell the story solely from Mike Waters’ point of view, ends up illuminating Van Sant’s directorial choices as much as it sheds additional light on the profound all out commitment of River Phoenix’ performance. Van Sant is lighter, drier, and more peculiar then Franco. Franco’s Mike Waters is histrionic (sometimes hilariously so, as when he suddenly begins fighting his own jacket, Buster Keaton style, in the middle of a bedroom seduction he has been hired to perform) and self pitying. In the world Franco creates, death is a foregone conclusion. It is Van Sant, less emotional and more worldly, who leaves room for redemption.
Which interpretation best reflects River Phoenix’ own understanding of the character? I am hoping all future scholars of My Own Private Idaho will see My Own Private River and come to their own conclusions.
I hereby claim My Own Private River as an Oregon film, on the basis of the contribution of River Phoenix, a native Oregonian, and on the basis of the location shooting, and the setting.
Karl Lind documented the artists’ talk before the screening:http://www.vimeo.com/29723965