James Franco: Mainstream cinema’s great contradiction
Chris Blohm | On 09, Aug 2014
Dreamer. Stoner. Intellectual pretender. Franco doesn’t just want to have his cake; he wants to have his cake, eat the damn thing whole, and then afterwards produce a hard-hitting, feature-length documentary about the cake’s digestion from a Gender Studies perspective.
We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Franco is one of mainstream cinema’s great contradictions. He’s a tortured artist and a Hollywood heart-throb, the sort of performer who’ll immerse himself in the literature of William Faulkner while cramming lines for a Disney tent-pole. He’ll even top-line a Jason Statham truck stop bruiser (Homefront) in the middle of prepping his own adaptation of a depraved Cormac McCarthy classic (Child of God). The dude is ridiculous: a walking, talking dichotomy in badass Ray Bans. That grin, though. Best in the business.
The Franco paradox was particularly evident when the actor turned up at the BFI last year to introduce a screening of Psycho as part of their ‘Screen Epiphanies’ series. Perhaps inevitably, the 127 Hours star arrived on-stage about thirty minutes late, addressing the audience with little more than a tempered growl, his woozy demeanour indicating an arduous transatlantic flight.
In town to promote Psycho Nacirema, an earnest collection of installations inspired by Hitchcock’s classic spine-chiller, Franco proceeded to talk rather intensely and humourlessly about his fascination with the macabre masterpiece to the doting crowd. None more serious. None more Franco.
But if his words were those of some jumped-up enfant terrible, then his look was pure James Dean glamour: leather jacket, sleepy eyes, a hazy Californian aura. It was a vision of someone who, killer hangover aside, hadn’t exactly suffered for his art, yet couldn’t wait to tell everyone all about it, albeit in the most mumbly fashion imaginable. Frankly, tormented souls shouldn’t look this alluring. If only he’d project a little more.
A few weeks later, and Franco was back in London, this time with Seth Rogen. They were promoting apocalyptic frat comedy This is the End, a drunken, self-referential opus in which Franco finally got his shot at a dream part: himself. More specifically, a painfully affected version of himself, with a penchant for phallic sculpture and laniferous knitwear. The film – a brash, bawdy, blokey picture, jam-packed with Hollywood in-jokes and deranged celebrity cameos — seemed at odds with the bohemian image of Franco the Creator, while perfectly complementing and compounding his personal myth. Like the moment he tinkled the ivories and knocked out a bit of Britney Spears for Harmony Korine in Spring Breakers, it shouldn’t have worked at all, but somehow just did.
So what the hell is Franco? Pretentious artiste, matinee idol or studio shill? In truth, he’s an amalgam of all three. Alongside his mercilessly white, thirty-something contemporaries Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shia LaBeouf, Franco represents a new breed of movie star: an independent spirit working within the studio system and, to all intents and purposes, a hyper-aware, self-facilitating media node. Nathan Barley after a few acting lessons. (Check out his YouTube channel for the evidence – you’ll find a lip-sync rendition of Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend and a saucy take on Kanye West’s infamous Bound 2 video, both joyous.)
Franco’s directing career is testament to this spirit of adventure. His films aren’t always ‘good’, per se, but they’re invariably interesting. Certainly more stimulating than standard studio dreck like Oz the Great and Powerful, that’s for sure. And there’s something dangerous and exciting bubbling beneath the surface of all of them. You get the feeling that Franco’s gently nudging his way towards a kind of enlightenment or revelation. His output is so prolific, generally speaking, that an all-out masterpiece is surely written in the stars. Maybe it’ll just pop out one day, like a rickety tooth, and we’ll all be too busy watching Planet of the Apes sequels to notice.
Franco’s three most recent efforts are all available on VOD, and they’re absolutely worth your attention.
Interior. Leather Bar
Watch Interior. Leather Bar online in the UK: blinkbox
The most daring and provocative of his films (though not necessarily the best) is Interior. Leather Bar. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but not really; the conceit is a ruse. Franco and co-director Travis Matthews (I Want Your Love) attempt to recreate long lost footage from William Friedkin’s famously chopped-up cult thriller Cruising, and in doing so, form a commentary on the perils of censorship and the nature of identity.
Like the movie’s source material, Interior. Leather Bar is a sweaty, musky concoction. Unlike the Friedkin picture, however, it’s a tremendously explicit proposition. Penises abound, which is entirely the point, of course, as Franco dissects the ignorance and redundancy of redaction. It’s a naive film, and one that occasionally struggles to rise above the level of a sixth-form art project, but there’s a handful of undeniably intriguing moments, especially when it transpires that many of the actors getting jiggy on-screen are real-life couples with histories.
As I Lay Dying
Much less explicit, but equally audacious in its own sprawling way, is As I Lay Dying, an ambitious take on William Faulkner’s revered modernist novel. The book is told from the point of view of fifteen different characters, including the soul of a corpse. In fact, the structure is so complex, and the language so dense, that it had long been considered unfilmable. Franco, though, laughs in the face of unfilmability.
Good for him. Rather than shying away from Faulkner’s oblique vision, the director dives headfirst into the piece, depicting assorted viewpoints using a combination of split-screen perspectives and overlapping voiceovers. Many sequences take on the form of collage, yet Franco keeps a firm grip on the narrative, steering events towards a depressingly ironic conclusion.
Many critics sneered at As I Lay Dying’s languorous pace and heightened miserablism, but there’s more to the film than that, not least a canny wit. Kudos, too, to O Brother Where Are Thou? star Tim Blake-Nelson, who delivers an enjoyably wretched performance as the film’s grotesque patriarch.
Child of God
Speaking of grotesques, Child of God is another adaptation of a difficult text, and there’s no point beating around the bush: it’s not for everyone. You can tell it’s not for everyone because the protagonist takes an almighty dump on-camera in the first five minutes of the movie. Now that’s what we call niche. Then again, depravity is fundamental in McCarthy’s hard-boiled universe.
Child of God is a tough, sometimes baffling watch, albeit one shot with a relatively light touch. Franco keeps a safe distance from Lester; he’s a casual observer rather than detailed documentarian. Like McCarthy, Franco shines a light to society’s degradation in the harshest possible way, but doesn’t judge or editorialise it. Lester is just “a child of God, much like yourself perhaps”. He reminds us of the precariousness of everything, our proximity to disaster, and our cosmic lack of humility.
The film was slammed upon its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Maybe you can have too much of a filthy thing. Maybe they’d just had enough of Franco’s sheer precociousness. Yet it’s this willing to experiment, to push the boat out into new and exotic places that mark Franco as a fascinating, if erratic, directorial talent.
In recent interviews, Franco has expressed a desire to leave commercial blockbusters behind, at least temporarily, and concentrate on smaller, low-key passion projects: the stories he wants to tell. His master-plan is already in full swing. Later this year, Franco releases his latest Faulkner adaptation, The Sound and the Fury, complete with an all-star cast, including Jon Hamm and apocalypse buddies Seth Rogen and Danny McBride. After that, there’s Bukowski, a biopic about the writer described by Time magazine as a “laureate of American low-life”.
Next year, he’ll concentrate his attention on The Disaster Artist, a behind-the-curtains peek at the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, widely hailed as one of the worst movies ever made. More freaks. More geeks. It couldn’t be more Franco if it tried.