ON A big screen near you soon, maybe, is River Phoenix’s final movie, Dark Blood, the film he was making when he went on that infamous night out in LA in October 1993.
Dark Blood has had a long journey to the big screen. The footage was almost burned in 1999 after its financers couldn’t resolve a dispute over who owned it. It only survived because the film’s Dutch director, George Sluizer, had it smuggled to Holland. It took Sluizer another decade – and a brush with his own death – to get round to editing it.
Like Terry Gilliam, whose The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus was thrown into chaos by the death of Heath Ledger, Sluizer didn’t have quite enough footage of Phoenix for it to hang together. While Gilliam audaciously divvied up Ledger’s unfilmed scenes between three other actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law), Sluizer went for a more prosaic approach: stills and a voiceover.
Unfinished final works are fascinating “what if?” exercises (favourites: Jeff Buckley’s My Sweetheart The Drunk, John Peel’s autobiography Margrave Of The Marshes, and Stanley Kubrick’s AI, at the storyboard stage when Kubrick died). In some ways they’re preferable to finished final works, which are invariably disappointments. We hope an artist’s final statement will be a conclusive full stop – a return to former glories, ideally, or at least a definitive summation of everything they were and what it meant. Death is more palatable that way.
In reality, though, creativity and life end in a slow slide towards oblivion, and the last thing most artists make is just another thing, and usually not a very good one. A typical example of this hope vs reality face-off is Dennis Potter’s Karaoke/Cold Lazarus. A groundbreaking collaboration between BBC and Channel 4, it was hyped as classic Potter, but turned out to be a muddle of half-formed new ideas and motifs recycled from previous dramas. Which is roughly what you’d expect from a man dying of cancer.
You might think this deliberately perverse (and it is a bit) but one of my favourite final works is the late Michael Winner’s last film, Parting Shots, released in 1998. Death Wish inexplicably reinvented as a 1970s sitcom starring Felicity Kendal, Joanna Lumley and Chris Rea as a dying hitman, it was described by one critic as “bad in every possible way”. Yet there is something endearing about the way it makes all of its distinguished cast – Ben Kingsley, Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg – look like bumbling, dribbling fools. I find this poignant and symbolic. This, after all, is how life really ends. «