I went to go see “Unfinished” by James Franco and Gus Van Sant because I heard the Michael Stipe had scored the film which was part of the exhibit. Indeed, the music was one of my favorite parts, but the entire show made me think about celebrity, artifice, and Hollywood as well — themes perhaps unintended by the artists, but certainly unmistakable in the work and the presentation of the work. On second thought, I’d like to believe they fully intended these themes; I’d like to give Franco and Van Sant that benefit of the doubt.
The Gagosian Gallery is in the heart of the shopping-heavy neighborhood of Beverly Hills. Parking was a huge headache. And everything is white is Beverly Hills. Everything. A blinding white. And walking into the gallery through frosted sliding doors, I wasn’t surprised to see “Supported by GUCCI” stenciled on the title wall. Fashion companies have long supported the visual arts, but this seemed particularly appropriate.
The first room opened into a narrow hallway where a row of larger-than-life ink and watercolor portraits hung. These were the work of director Van Sant. The first few pieces I found myself dismissing. They seemed especially amateur — like something out of high school Painting I class. The fingers had no depth, the subject seemed trite.
Walking further down the small hallway though, the paintings began to take on more and more weight. The two below struck me in particular:
The expression of the darkhaired boy is subtle and mesmerizing and familiar. The composition resonates as Polaroid: brief, improvised, caught.
The boy in the hat stares so intently it’s as if he bleeds from the contours and shadows on his face. Looking closely, you can see the pencil marks that first began to build his face: quick and graceful. There is such an affection for the boys in these paintings.
Immediately behind you as you looked at these boys hung a torn and ragged curtain. It completely caught me off-guard. This kind of curtain is possibly the last thing I would expect to see in 90210.
The curtained opened back at the beginning of the hallway and the context change went with it. A cardboard box was hastily duct taped down and a rickety yellow folding chair delineated where to walk. It reminded me of the Off-Center, a dingy theater in Austin I used to think I was cool enough to hang out at. Being inside the room only solidified my memory: mismatched couches and chairs were strewn about, all facing a large projection on on end. A table was in the corner that I think had coffee and donuts on it, though I didn’t venture near enough to see for sure. An old 18″ television with a VCR connected in a mess of tangled grey and black (see: the Walkmen) cables played what I later realized was My Own Private Idaho, the outtakes of which Franco had cut together to create My Own Private River, playing on the large screen.
I sat and watched almost 50 minutes of the 100 minute film.
I’ve never seen My Own Private Idaho, which I think I’m really glad about in terms of watching Franco’s film. I was able to commit myself to the film without constantly comparing it to the original or trying to remember the original. I’m sure I would have understood River differently had I seen Idaho, but I was happy to take what was in front of me on its own.
I was taken with two scenes in particular. There’s an extended scene of Phoenix and Keanue Reeves riding around on a motorcycle. Stipe’s music played not so much underneath, but rather right next to. The scene had sort of the feel of a music video, but the rhythmic looping of the motorcycle’s figure 8s as the silent characters drifted between enjoying the ride and getting lost in their own thoughts of their lives’ struggles lifted the scene into something beyond MTV. Maybe it felt like a real “art film.” I’m not sure I know what that means.
The other scene was a conversation between Phoenix’s character and his girlfriend. They’re sitting beneath this enormous bridge, having had sex just beyond the earshot of a maintenance worker, raking fall leaves. Their conversation, shot I think from only two angles — directly in front of them and from way above — was one of those shockingly familiar and “real” exchanges I’m always (pleasantly) surprised to hear in movies. The shot from above made them seem like the only two people in the world, yet they talked about one of the most banal and strangely self-absorbed thing: lucky numbers. They charted their own lucky numbers through time — used to be 5 now it’s 8… The edgy girlfriend claims her number has always 13 because it’s seen as unlucky… They seem so young and so lost and yet these numbers were so strong a part of their identities.
I’ve had these conversations! I’ve said these things out loud and been embarrassed by them and proud at the same time. You can’t help but have lucky numbers and hold on to them because they are a part of you, they are a part of how you define yourself, at one time, at least. I so cherish these moments in movies; I call them FUBU moments — completely and inappropriately stealing the name from the clothing line. But it works: these are “my people” and they’re talking like I talk about things I talk about.
I think the credit for this moment having such resonance is also due to the way the room was setup. For whatever reason — the subject matter of the film, the layout of the mismatched couches, the dirty coffee cups, the shabby curtain — I was able to suspend my disbelief and forget that I was in the middle of Beverly Hills, let alone in an art gallery. That afternoon was one of those striking moments, one of those perfect storms of art object and presentation and me. This particular exhibit was so successful for me — the exhibit was the platform on which I experienced the art.
Even when I did step back and take in the Hollywood location, even that seem to add to the experience. I was watching a film, an artifice of life, in one of the more artificial neighborhoods in the world. At the same time, the care with which the film was constructed, the attention Franco pays to Phoenix transcends the film and what emerges is a sense of true respect and admiration. At the same time still, it is one actor looking to another actor. Even the character Phoenix plays, a john working in Portland, confronts real love and bought love. Layers and layers concerning artifice and “real life,” art and life, real and pretend and friendship and acting and love.
What I brought to the table in this case was as important as what the film was showing. It’s a tough case for museums and galleries: they have to trust that I’m going to show up and bring what I can. I think the expectation can go both ways: we as museum and gallery-goers can expect that sometimes (obviously not all the time) the exhibit will be just for us and at the same time the galleries can expect that not only will we be there, but we’ll be there ready to think and learn and be open to the experience at hand.