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REVIEW | A Work In Progress: James Franco and Gus Van Sant’s “Unfinished”

REVIEW | A Work In Progress: James Franco and Gus Van Sant's "Unfinished"

James Franco’s ubiquity may finally have reached its saturation point this past weekend. Within the same frenzied 48-hour period there was his Independent Spirit Award win for “127 Hours;” an Oscar co-hosting gig; and a third, less-visible achievement: Saturday was the opening of “Unfinished,” his collaboration with director Gus Van Sant. And it’s only this work, now open to the public at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, that provides a tool to understanding Franco’s apparent campaign to baffle the public.

The small Gagosian space has been divided into three parts, two of which contain video projections, while the third displays large watercolor portraits of young men painted by Van Sant. The projections are comprised of extraneous footage from Van Sant’s 1991 drama “My Own Private Idaho” and reedited by Franco into two pieces that bring newfound scrutiny to River Phoenix’s sullen performance.

“My Own Private River” runs 100 minutes, while “Endless Idaho” clocks in at a whopping 12 hours. Both show the late Phoenix playing his alienated street urchin, Mike, free from the context of the completed narrative feature. Instead, Franco edits together distended moments in which Phoenix inhabits the role with such verisimilitude that the material suggests a nonlinear documentary.

On Saturday morning, the first day that the exhibit opened to the public, I was among four or five curious attendees drifting between these pieces. Given their relative lengths, I had more time to observe “My Own Private River,” which I found genuinely compelling and a fascinating companion to the original movie. A smart distributor would rerelease Van Sant’s feature on DVD for its 20th anniversary and include this elegantly curated outtake montage as a bonus.

“My Own Private River” opens with a track written by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe set to footage of a giddy Phoenix horsing around and mugging for the camera. Franco then cuts to time-lapse images of desolate Portland with expressive and silent b-roll of clouds whipping through the sky. The subsequent scene, included in Van Sant’s film, shows Phoenix’s Mike in close-up as he receives a blowjob from an unseen person.

But as the sequence continues, it takes on a rawer feel than the source material. The unmixed soundtrack strips artifice and draws attention to the naturalistic quality of Phoenix’s performance. As he continues to play Max, grabbing groceries and meandering down the street alongside fellow street hustler Keanu Reeves, Max becomes not the star of the show but the show itself. Glaring at himself in a bathroom mirror, Phoenix abruptly breaks his moody stare by sticking out his tongue and wiggling his fingers. In these moments, Franco picks up on the “private” qualities implied by the project’s title, sketching Phoenix/Max as a somber introvert with a playfulness just beneath the surface.

The feeling of reality uncut expands to the installation’s physical space, which is described in notes made available to museum visitors: “Metal chairs, coffee maker, checkered linoleum floor, couches, Christmas tree, small television screening original film ‘My Own Private Idaho.'” When I attended, the television displayed an empty blue screen, but you get the idea: The smaller screen allows for contrast between the polished original and the installation’s more expansive portrait. The room’s casual setup also creates a sense of intimacy with the figure projected on the wall. Watching Phoenix seamlessly transition into his character, it’s impossible not to be mesmerized, as Franco probably was when Van Sant first shared this material while the two worked on “Milk.”

As Phoenix and Max merge, “My Own Private River” makes evident the dual nature of all performances, an underlying tension between the character onscreen and the individual who creates it. And that’s Franco’s current shtick in a nutshell. Much of the perceived weirdness of his ultra-busy schedule revolves around the way it draws attention to the work behind the scenes. (Even at the Oscars, the guy was tweeting from backstage.) Wondering how he does it all turns the activity of creation into the actual story.

“My Own Private River” gets that point across a lot better than the adjacent installation, “Endless Idaho,” which I watched for about half an hour. Paying homage to Andy Warhol both in length and confounding avant-garde inspiration, this distended collection of outtakes — supposedly an “alternative version” of the movie, but really just a repetitive series of long shots preceded by the clapper — puts more emphasis on the production process.

Maybe I didn’t see enough to get the whole picture, because after watching Phoenix drift through a massive vista a half dozen times, an unseen hand suddenly quit out of the Quicktime program playing the video, leaving in its place a cluttered Apple desktop. (That’s one way to break the fourth wall.) While I’m not in a position to address this aspect of the exhibit in detail, I’d suggest that if you have some spare time and live near the Gagosian… you might want to focus on “My Own Private River” instead.

Still, despite its modest contents, the gallery offers a uniquely contemplative experience. In contrast to the media’s ubiquitous befuddlement over Franco’s career, “Unfinished” establishes a tantalizing thesis for the intersection of personality and artistic expression. As a cerebral companion piece to the media deconstruction of Franco’s “Three’s Company: The Drama,” which premiered in January at Sundance, it eschews straightforward analysis for an open-ended approach. The art reflects the artist: “Unfinished” positions the Franco effect as a constant work in progress.

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