A Gus Van Sant retrospective was held at the Paris Cinematheque in France from April 13th to July 31.
Of special interest to River Fans, there was-a conference by Jean-Marc Lalanne about River Phoenix, "the numb angel" - in French. May 5, 2016 - 7pm.
River Phoenix, un ange engourdi - full video of the conference (in French).
Here's a long summary of it I wrote for fans who don't understand French :
Jean-Marc Lalanne's conference about River Phoenix explores his intuition that River built an auteur's work through his choice of roles, that closely mirrors his life. And that, even though he didn't write the scripts, or the words his characters say. A work where constant patterns and themes come back, and trace a life trajectory not unlike his own.
He goes through River's career and life to support this view, starting with the opening scene of My Own Private Idaho. MOPI marks a gap on recognition for him, since it earns him a few awards including the Volpi cup at the Venice film festival. It also nears the end of it, since he dies two years after its release.
River's story goes back to his parents, of course. Arlyn Dunetz, born in Brooklyn, who gives up her job, husband and routine life to go on the roads as a hippie. She meets and falls in love with a fellow hippie, John Bottom. Together, they travel to Oregon - where MOPI is set - , where John works in a farm and Arlyn gives birth to River in a barn. John and Arlyn then joined the Children of God, and changed their names to Amram and Jochebed - a heavily symbolic choice, as Lalanne points out, as these are the names of Moses's parents, which hints at River's designated role of messiah.
In the sect, the motion of property is disconstructed, as well as that of family : children are raised by the whole group and separated from their biological parents.
After a few years, and Rain's birth, they are recognized as exemplar disciples by the sect leader. They are sent as missionaries in South America. They travel around for a few years, and Joaquin, Liberty and Summer are born. After some time, John and Arlyn are disturbed by the practices of the sect, and leave to go back to USA.
As they are going to scolarize the kids, to spare them being mocked about the name Bottom, John changes the whole family name to Phoenix.
The kids sing and play music in the streets to make money. River being the most gifted, Arlyn makes him try his luck at castings. He soon gets picked for advirtisings, TV movies...
In Gavin Edwards' biography published in 2015, it's said that as a teenager, he refers to his siblings and also his parents as "his kids".
He gets his first role in a movie in Joe Dante's Explorers. In it, in the scene shown here, he's introduced by the character played by Ethan Hawke to a third boy as "the weird kid from a weird family". Ethan Hawke does say in River's bio that he had never met a child like River : vegan militant, politically engaged, very serious and always willing to discuss grave matters only. Not light-hearted topics usually discussed by kids.
His character is named Wolfgang, like if he was doomed to become a genius child like Mozart. A parallel with River being named after the River of Life, and the way he was often described as being peculiar. In the movie, Wolfgang builds a machine to contact aliens. It works, but they get in touch with kid aliens, who only know Earth from US TV shows. And Wolfgang connects with them faster than the other kids. He even develops a crush on an alien girl. As if it took him to travel across the universe and away from his biological family to stop being a precocious adult, and act like the teenager he is. Another recurring pattern is that River's character is the older brother, the one who always reacts quietly.
In the second movie, Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, he's again a sort of surrogate older brother to the rest of the gang. In one of the excerpts shown, he saves one if his friends, the most dysfunctional, who wanted to dodge a train. And after saving him, instead of resenting him for putting them both in danger, he's the one who offers a hand.
A scene in the middle is going to have a lasting impact on directors who will work with River afterwards : a confession scene by a campfire, where River's character acts as the older brother his friend Gordie, conforting him about his loss of his real older brother.
The end also appears, in hindsight, as poignantly echoing reality : Chris, River's character, is revealed to have escaped the little town to become a lawyer. But he died after trying to step into a fight between two men he didn't know. Again, he tried to be the peacemaker. But it meant his undoing. And, visually, it's teenage Chris who not only walks away, but fades into the nature around him.
Jean-Marc Lalanne believes that Gus Van Sant saw that movie, since a scene in MOPI resembles the campfire scene.
River's career is launched by this performance, and he becomes the main breadwinner for the family. It's also the start of an image of the crucified body, the sacrified one.
The next movie is Peter Weir's Mosquito Coast. One of the strongest parallels to River's own life, it sees him being the older brother in a family where Allie Fox, the father, criticizes the western society and moves with his entire family to Central America, in an attempt to create an alternate lifestyle. Not exactly where River's parents travelled with their kids, but close. The two scenes chosen are at the beginning and close to the end. Initially, River's character, Charlie, worships his father and his views. But Allie goes deeper and deeper into insanity, and betrays his family, telling them that USA have been nuked to dissuade them from going back.
It's a new theme and figure in the 80es, and River will define it, it's the loss of ideals from the 70es, and how it transfers to the next generation : children build themselves in contradiction to family and society values. So how do you construct your identity when your parents themselves are the most radical, opposed to society, even to reality, in the case of Allie Fox.
Another landmark of his career is Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty. Again, he plays the older brother in a peculiar family. His character's parents are peace activists who involuntarily caused a security guard to be harmed by a bomb set in a lab, when thet were students. They have been living on a run since then, giving birth to two boys on the way. Daniel, the elder, is the one who spots the CIA agents on his way back from school at the beginning of the movie. He is the savior figure again, allowing his family to escape the government once more. In this movie, however, unlike in Mosquito Coast where the only way out is tragic and Allie unredeemable, the parents idealistic, radical life choices are not irreconcilible with their children's aspiration to be more normal. Daniel turns out to be a very talented pianist, but to truly develop his gift, he must part from his family to settle. ROE is another exploration of the theme of how the choices of parents affect their kids. The scene where he confesses Lorna to be a liar and reveal his true identity echoes to the confession scene in Stand By Me.
With his glasses and hair color at the movie beginning, he resembles Allie Fox, as if that father figure was pursuing him. Martha Plimpton, who plays his girlfriend Lorna, also played a girl he had a flirt with in Mosquito Coast. And she was his girlfriend in real life throughout this period. So the parallel between his real life and his characters was at his peak there.
That movie really garners River a lot of attention, he's nominated for an Academy Award for it. Gus Van Sant wants him and Keanu Reeves to play in his next movie, but River's agent doesn't show him the script. He just played the young Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg's third installment of the emblematic series - again, Harrison Ford's figure is present. So he's ready for blockbusters. Fortunately, Keanu and River played together in a former movie, I love you to death. He rides on his motorbike from Toronto to Florida to bring River the script and a tape of Van Sant movie Drugstore Cowboy. River is already struggling with addiction at this time, so he relates to Drugstore Cowboy, and accepts the part.
My Own Private Idaho is, in many ways, the turn in River's career. He's again an outsider in it, a hustler. But this time, he's the one who needs protection, the younger brother : to an older brother he meets later in the movie, old enough to be his father, and to Keanu Reeves' character, Scott. In the movie, Mike is always carried around by others : on Scott's bike, in a stranger's car, carried in arms, as if he was unable to move by himself, like a baby. Gus Van Sant finally deprives River from his status of hero, precocious child, the responsible one. He offers River a part where he can be the child figure, liberating him from the burden of being in charge. Mike, his character, is in search for his mother, whom he dreams about as a loving figure (and he dreams a lot, because he suffers from narcolepsy, a condition described in the opening of the movie), holding him on her lap and stroking his hair in a soothing way. That's also how Scott holds Mike at the end of the campfire scene. That scene also appears to be an echo from the one in Stand By Me.
Idaho is also a turning point because River was given more creative freedom in it than in his other movies. He moved in Gus Van Sant's house during the shooting. He also brought actor friends to play in the movie. Gus Van Sant allowed him to offer input on his character, and the campfire scene in particular is a scene he rewrote. He turned it into a love declaration, even though it wasn't in the initial version. It's a big scene in his career, where it appears that hus whole body is turned into a sensitive area, and he curls into a ball of raw sensitivity.
The end of the movie was changed compared to the script. Mike, abandoned by Scott who went back to a normal life, suffers another fit of narcolepsy and falls asleep on the road. After being stolen his shoes and bag, he's picked up by a guy in a van. In the original script, a final scene was a reveal that the driver was Mike's brother. By cutting up the scene, Gus Van Sant leaves Mike's destiny hanging, is the driver rescuing him, or in the contrary bad news. The initial script was granting Mike his wish to go back home. By cutting it, it moves his course forward. It's the opposite of Keanu's character path, who goes back to the life his father wanted for him. The salmons represent this move backwards, while Mike now goes with the flow, down the river, to freedom. So River here joins his name, and though he moves forward like a river, his characters also keep falling and rising again, like a phoenix.
Asked in an interview who he was, Gus Van Sant answered he didn't want the viewer to know, because "It's me, to go with him on the road forever". A joke, obviously, but every viewer wants to rescue Mike.
Next are shown three excerpts of other movies by Gus Van Sant, without River, but that seem to carry on his imprint :
- To Die For - Jimmy's character, played by Joaquin Phoenix, looks like a comical yet touching parody of River's part in MOPI.
- Gerry - a campfire scene that looks like the one in MOPI, but deprived of meaning.
- Last Days - about a character taking a lot from Kurt Cobain, but also with hints of River. They both cristallized the same popular energy and died young.
River haunts the work of Gus Van Sant.
The next and last film is one in which River didn't play, but he was meant to : Interview With The Vampire, by Neil Jordan. In it, his character Daniel Molloy, reprised by Christian Slater, is a journalist who wants to write the life story of Louis, a vampire. In the end, he asks Louis to turns him into a vampire. Louis is furious because for him it's a plague, so he threatens him and leaves... Daniel flees, but in his car he's attacked by Lestat, the older vampire who had made Louis a vampire. Lestat bites Daniel and tells him he's going to transform him.
Cue Jean-Marc Lalanne closing his conference on "And so disappears River Phoenix, on the eve of being granted immortality on film."
I really enjoyed this conference. I even learned a few things (guess I should read Gavin Edwards' book but time flew). It didn't list in detail all of River's movies, but it left more time for the most important ones. In places it echoed to thoughts I had already had - like most fans I guess.
Also I realized afterwards why the name of Jean-Marc Lalanne was familiar to me : he interviewed Summer Phoenix years ago when she was promoting her French-directed movie Esther Kahn. Not that I can reproach anyone to be slightly obsessed with River, obviously (20 years of maintaining this site...).