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COVER STORY

Sprung from raw words

June 14, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

ABOUT two years ago, the poems began arriving in Joaquin Phoenix's mailbox, small batches of them, day after day, for weeks -- poetry that was unsolicited, previously unpublished and rawer than steak tartare.

Written by Marcos Johnson, a former TV casting agent with an extreme personality, their jagged stanzas spoke of bruised romanticism and hardscrabble street life -- Bukowski-esque narratives of chemical excess and personal redemption born out of Johnson's white-knuckle experiences as a junkie. The actor found them impossible to put out of mind.

"Marcos' words didn't seem like they'd been written. More like they'd been discharged," Phoenix recalls in a loopy exegesis about the work he put together earlier this month. "I wanted others to read it ... So ... I thought about doing a book combining photography and using Marcos' words as the inspiration for the photographs."

Although a book deal is still to be ironed out, the Oscar nominee's visceral reaction to Johnson's writing has resulted in a multimedia art project for which Phoenix, among others, "acts" the part of "Marcos" in various situations inspired by the poems. These were photographed by their mutual friend, professional lensman Michael Muller, guerrilla-style -- that is to say, on the fly and without the prerequisite movie star trappings like personal assistants, makeup or even location permits. On hiatus in between film roles, Phoenix often worked himself into a state of psychic anguish for art's sake.

"Joaq would go totally into character," said Muller, 36, who met the actor four years ago through another shared friend, actor Balthazar Getty. "There were shoots where he was bawling. He wasn't acting. He'd say, 'Get this.' I'd look up and there'd be tears running down his face."

A work-in-progress glimpse of their collaboration, "Another Night Upon Us," goes up at M+B Gallery today, running through June 23 -- an exhibition consisting of Muller's large-scale photographs interspersed with Johnson's poetry, scrawled in chalk directly onto the gallery's walls.

"Our challenge was, how do you showcase the images without trumping the words?" said Muller. "The words have to work symbiotically with the text."

Robert Frost observed that poetry "is what gets lost in translation." But all parties involved with "Another Night Upon Us" agree the photos are alternately atmospheric and haunting, violent and funny, just like the poems that inspired them.

"It creates something that is more than doubly powerful," Johnson, 42, said.

Although many of Johnson's poems are set in Northern California, where he lives, the images seem to exist in some anonymous American nowheresville with a palpable sense of sleaze and ennui. Which also extends to the photos' bruised, tattooed and bleary-eyed subjects. Tantalizingly, Muller insists that among their deliberately unidentifiable ranks are a Who's Who of actors, models, rock stars and multimillionaires whom he refuses to name but who he promises will be revealed with the release of the book.

At this point, however, Phoenix has distanced himself from the project, serving more as a "producer" than photo subject. "I don't think he wanted to carry the whole load," Muller said. "We're parlaying different people through the role rather than it being just a whole book about Joaquin." (Phoenix declined to be interviewed for this article.)

All three share an apparent morbid fascination with the low life that's rooted in their personal experiences: Phoenix, 32, who lost his brother River to a drug overdose in 1993, went into rehabilitation for alcoholism in 2005. Muller lived the Hollywood vida loca as an up-and-coming commercial and fashion photographer in the '90s. And Johnson describes himself as "no angel" -- someone who is still "prone to bouts of impulsiveness."

"We're all, in a sense, reformed bad boys," Muller said. "We've lived very much on the dark side and then come into the light. We bring that with us."

chris.lee@latimes.com

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`Another Night Upon Us'

Where: M+B Gallery, 612 N. Almont Drive, L.A.

When: Opening, 7 to 9 p.m. today. Regular hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Ends: June 23

Info: (310) 550-0050, www.mbfala.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The tangled concrete web of L.A.

We once rode

On wings of nowhere

In a neighborhood

Without welcome

excerpt from "Before the Fall-Out"

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Muller, who got his professional start photographing snowboarders as a teen, strapped himself into a harness and hung from a helicopter to capture the 110 and 105 interchange. Though Muller notes that the show isn't about his hometown, "there is a lot of L.A.," he said of "Another Night Upon Us." "Me and Joaq got into the car, no set ideas, went down to Union Station where that guy was nodding off [see cover]. Boom! Joaq plops down next to him."

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