Preview: My Own Private River at the Wexner Center

From the March 29, 2012 edition

It’s understandable if anyone but the most ardent James Franco fan isn’t able to keep track of what he’s been up to lately.

The monumentally busy actor, producer, screenwriter and director is currently shooting the next Harmony Korine film, and has a total of seven projects slated for theaters over the next two years.

Simultaneously, Franco’s been a by-most-reports dedicated student in a steady stream of master’s programs (now enrolled at Yale and the Rhode Island School of Design). He’s also created numerous performance, installation and media works focused on adolescent rites of passage, iconic bits of pop culture and the architecture of celebrity personas. For instance, he recently made an experimental film shot during his stint on “General Hospital” in which Franco gave a performance as a performance artist named Franco.

Among this dizzying array of endeavors is a reasonably straightforward tribute to the creator of one of Franco’s favorite films, 1991’s “My Own Private Idaho,” and its ill-fated star, River Phoenix. “My Own Private River” is April’s selection in The Box at the Wexner Center.

In a sense, with this project Franco is playing the role of “Idaho” filmmaker Gus Van Sant. After working with him on the biopic “Milk,” Franco was able to spend two days with Van Sant reviewing unused footage and dailies from the 1991 indie drama.

According to written accounts from Franco, the two discussed how different “Idaho” might be if Van Sant made it now, given his move toward the sparse, long-take approach of European artists such as Chantal Akerman and Bela Tarr.

With the filmmaker’s blessing, Franco took the unused “Idaho” footage and created an alternate, same-length version of the story. It adheres to Van Sant’s style evolution and places stronger narrative emphasis on Mike, the narcoleptic prostitute played by Phoenix. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, a friend of the late actor, contributes original songs to Franco’s reimagining.

In addition to bringing out more of what Franco has described as “the best of his generation giving his best performance,” the approach also commemorates the parts of an actors’ work that are lost when multiple takes are edited down to one for a final cut.