What is James Franco Reading?

A extensive look at all those movies James Franco directed.

James Franco has done a lot of things, we’ve heard. Following a successful turn on Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks and a well-received starring spot on a TNT biopic on James Dean, he turned immediately to a litany of pursuits: from playwriting and English degrees to painting and directing no less than ten feature-lengths. The latter project interested me. Were they any good? In Franco’s Rolling Stone profile last year, Jonah Weiner ran around a thesaurus of words like “dizzying,” “indefatigable“ and, wait for it, “multihyphenate” to describe his subject but none of those words mean very much. Paul Klee painted over a thousand paintings in the penultimate last year of his life. So could I. So what?

“What did we do to deserve James Franco?,” asked Rex Reed in a slightly different era. Back then, even the The Guardian agreed with Jared Kushner’s cultural mouthpiece, titling an op-ed: “It’s time to bring James Franco’s reign of half-assed artistry to an end.” But while the era of snark gave way to the current self-conscious language of emphatic sincerity and narrations of Franco’s feats have turned from malicious to maximalist, the work, itself, remains ruthlessly unscrutinized as a whole. Unlike other prolific actor-turned-auteurs – someone like John Cassavetes comes to mind – Franco’s work is understood as an odd outlier of his career. This reading is wrong. Franco’s films present a coherent essay on artistry and the pursuit of storytelling for its own sake, an attempt to take a hifalutin library of signifiers and organize them into the language of everyday human drama. They are works that are unafraid of trying very hard and when they succeed, they succeed. (But don’t get me wrong, emphatic sincerity is great; Rich Juzwiak’s milking of his own sorrow to sell his interview with Anne Hathaway is great.)

A scene from the opening of ‘The Ape’

It begins roughly in the early 2000s. A company called Rabbit Bandini Productions is formed by Franco and Vincent Jolivette, an actor Franco meets when struggling in LA. But Franco is cast as the stoner heartthrob in Freaks and Geeks and Jolivette is cast as “Customer In Store” in Auggie Rose. Jolivette decides he wants to be a producer and they form a company with that legitimately ridiculous name, after the titular hero of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy and the hero of John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini. It will produce all of Franco’s projects along with a certain number of projects Franco considers personally important. At the same time Franco, was working on a number of plays with Merriwether Williams, former head writer on Spongebob Squarepants, that were being produced at an acting school Franco used to attend. Shortly after Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 hit theaters, the next project to bear Franco’s name would be an adaptation of one of his plays, his directorial debut, The Ape.

In the final scene of Spiderman 2, Franco’s Harry Osborn looks moodily at his father’s Green Goblin-mask, nodding politely to the overstuffed film that would follow. In The Ape, Franco plays opposite a guy (Brian Lally, the first of many actors whose primary IMDB credits would be in Franco’s other movies) in an ape mask. A handful of curious connections to Spiderman 2 follow; Franco’s character is named Harry Walker, most of the movie takes place in a prominently bricked New York loft that brings to mind Peter Parker’s vaguely unrealistic everyman digs. Franco’s claustrophobic directing style, where something is always happening in the shadow of whoever is speaking, recalls Raimi’s first two Evil Dead movies. Per Nathan Rabin, Franco also misidentifies his protagonist as “Harry Osborn” in The Ape’s DVD commentary, so there’s that.

Franco would make one other movie in this early style and co-written with Williams, Good Time Max, and it’s hard not to conclude that both are terrible. (Franco made another title, Fool’s Gold, in between those, but most traces of it have vanished from the internet and, consequently, refer to other movies also titled Fool’s Gold. Maybe he just really didn’t like it.) Both self-consciously toyed with archetypal narratives: The Ape is a comedy about a male writer grappling with his ego, vis-à-vis a large imaginary ape, and Good Time Max is an addiction drama that takes the trope’s there-by-the-grace-of-god staging literally – featuring two brothers who ‘grow up and grow apart’ as one (Franco) gets lost in the proverbial sauce and the other (unsuccessful actor Jolivette, the only starring role of his career) is some kind of successful surgeon. We know that the kids are geniuses because, on a car trip, they play a game of adding large numbers without a calculator and then pointing to their heads.

Despite Franco’s household name fame, discussion of either movie is sparse on the internet; neither has been reviewed enough to even merit a Rotten Tomatoes score. Kate Erbland called The Ape “the weirdest part of Franco’s already deeply weird career,” back when she wrote for Film School Rejects, and considered it “a shockingly inept” rip-off of Harvey, a Henry Koster movie that starred Jimmy Stewart. An abandoned blog called Why Does It Exist? provided more extensive commentary, writing that The Ape was part of Franco’s dabbling “in the low-brow” and compared it to Franco’s work in movies like Your Highness. Good Time Max would disappear quickly, with little notice, after its Tribeca debut. It’s unceremoniously on Hulu now. But as a pair, both movies become more interesting. The writing on the latter is somewhat atrocious but it also isn’t; it’s a meth-fueled Leaving Las Vegas co-written with a guy who wrote thirty-nine episodes of SpongeBob. It opens with Franco’s character selling coke to a menacing dealer (Jarrod Bunch); jaw agape in a version of his slacker smirk, Franco repeatedly tells him that the bad coke Franco is unloading is “pure as your girl.” A few minutes later, we cut to a scene of Franco fucking the dealer’s aforementioned girl. In another setpiece, Franco takes a job at a computer company and quickly turns the office into a Wolf of Silicon Valley-meth party.

Franco’s early films are unapologetic in flaunting their creator’s sex appeal; taking place in the office life that Franco was born into – his father was a business world math-whiz – they explode Office Space­-tedium into a lush buzz of cartoonish sex and drugs. They were insincere with their premises but never in a way that never felt untrue: they were the work of a man who had seen the insides of hundreds of scripts and was exhausted of their traps while trying to duplicate one. Coincidentally, they would be the last original stories that Franco would try to tell as a director. Their portraits of struggling genius were intensely aware of their own failings, a large photo of Dostoevsky hangs over The Ape’s set and the people of Good Time Max are so unbearable that the movie’s obsession with drugs feel like an obvious relief. “I’ve been involved in the biggest commercial movies, movies that broke box-office records. I’ve been in movies that won Academy Awards,” Franco later told Indiewire, “To me, neither of those things were goals.”

Moods explored in Franco’s directorial filmography: unsure (The Ape), adrift (Good Time Max), contemplative (The Broken Tower) and wary (In Dubious Battle)

Franco’s work that followed would hew closer to the real world, if a past version of it. The early slew of bi0pics would, by some, be read as autobiographical; “It’s likely that Franco…sees a kindred spirit in his subject,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote about Sal, Franco’s exploration of the last day of Sal Mineo, the actor who starred opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Mineo – like modernist poet Hart Crane, the subject of Franco’s other biopic, The Broken Tower —was also gay. Around this time, rumors of Franco’s homosexuality were running around the internet, namely on Gawker – who engaged in what The Daily Beast would later call a “years-long crusade to out James Franco.” Franco would later toyfully reference all this when he wrote a somewhat infamous interview of himself as “Gay James” along with a book of poetry titled Straight James/Gay James. His ‘gay’ movies, on the other hand, the ones he made and not the ones he starred in, were curiously unfocused efforts, his camera, fresh out of film school, waiting for something but unsure of how to fill that space. The literary reverence of The Broken Tower could almost be seen as a precursor to his later novel adaptations; in it, Franco delivers a riposte to his populist version of poetry in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman Howl, where Franco played Allen Ginsberg. In much of The Broken Tower, Franco’s Crane similarly reads his poetry to a smaller crowd and it is obtuse stuff, as Crane’s work is, and the reaction of the crowd is a shrug. In Franco’s own work, he is hardly the populist ragamuffin he is known as nor a likable loser. Franco’s space is between the two, teasing his legendary smile out in only the smallest of portions.

Many are aware of Franco’s first in a series of ‘prestige’ book adaptations: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Lying, a movie that Franco had finally become famous enough to ensure that critics would, briefly, watch. They mostly dismissed it. Even A.O. Scott, whose write-up was vaguely positive, diligently bracketed his discussion with a comparison of Franco’s decision to adapt Faulkner’s novel to the absurd quest of Faulkner’s characters. But why, outside of outsized reverence to books most Americans haven’t read, should this be? Most directors, it is true, when turning to the ‘classics’ make some effort of grappling with them. All the noise in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby comes to mind. The campy, yet easy to ignore, theatrical staging of Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina. These are popular stories and the quest to adapt them is necessarily craven. Franco’s choices have decidedly been novelists whose popularity is less everyday; names like Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy are revered but mainly in the bookstore. While directors like Luhrmann or Wright are forced to supplement or guess at authorial voice in order to fill seats with the sophistication that brands like Fitzgerald or Tolstoy demand, Franco is allowed to have fun with it. They have, generally, been low-budget events and Franco claims to care little if they are seen.

His approach is, consequently, different. His adaptations are more interested in filleting the texts they interpret than in trying, vainly, to match the power of another medium. His staging is, as many have begrudgingly noted, intensely reverent. But his direction mostly avoids the ambling voices of their authors – one imagines a more true adaptation of Faulkner would be a plucky Malick knockoff. Instead, Franco chases the territory of the text like a reader does, looking for places of interest: where the wheels of small plots run privately in a reader’s head. The homeric elements of Faulkner’s work are relaxingly dormant, Franco’s treatment recalls the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? — a movie that similarly cast Tim Blake Nelson to similar effect. With the comic talent at Franco’s disposal (Danny McBride also phones it in as Faulkner’s Vernon) and its interest in the adventure underneath the novel’s journey, Franco’s As I Lay Dying ceases to be about death.

The journey to Jefferson, Mississippi is rendered like a fraught tale in the jungle on Lost: everyone has their own little reasons and we tensely wait for their brewing conflicts to clash. The secret pregnancy of Dewey Dell (previously a “Girl Jumping on Bed” in Good Time Max) is run like that of a teenage drama heroine and not like Faulkner’s owner of certain questions of faith and purity. Elsewhere, Franco runs some of the novel’s interior monologues like conversations with the camera in The Office. Franco’s use of a split-screen narrative device is, perhaps, the movie’s only overly portentous element, but even that could be shrugged aside as an experimental holdover from movies like Good Time Max that wanted to contain so many things that they needed two screens to do it. Franco would cast away the remaining experimental infrastructure in the films that followed and his movies would slowly morph into grandiose constructions of glowing cinematic architecture.

Abandoning that jumble of low-budget influences – low-budget horror especially plays a smooth part in both As I Lay Dying and his next project, an adaptation of McCarthy’s Child of God – would turn his next Faulkner adaptation, The Sound and the Fury, into a kind of Masterpiece Theater with extended zooming. His version of the mentally disabled Benji, who Fracno himself plays, in The Sound and the Fury is remarkable, making himself viciously unsexy but the whole thing is played off as a buddy comedy involving lots of whispering and narrating straight from Faulkner. There, too, the predominant use of comic actors – Nelson is reprised, Seth Rogan gives a smart cameo – fesls like an autobiographical rebuff directed at the seriousness that fiction is so often read today. The holiness of a name like Faulkner lost in the surf of screenplay after screenplay. Faulkner becomes just the owner of a nothing more than a story, the kind of thing you tell around a fireplace, but one that keenly possesses far more energy than Your Highness or This is the End. Franco’s turn to John Steinbeck to make In Dubious Battle was a turn toward a more easily filmable storyteller, but Franco, remarkably, did little to make a tale of morally duplicitous Communists inciting a strike into something contemporary. He rendered it as it was: Steinbeck’s ’30s novels were mostly melodramatic propaganda and In Dubious Battle carries that heaviness in every pause between Selena Gomez’s working class drawl. More compelling was Child of God – Franco’s directorial masterpiece and one that creates a coherent narrative behind his work as a whole.

Like his take on The Sound and the Fury, Franco makes a series of overt gestures at the original text: it flashes on the screen and there’s an opening narration. A banjo-laden score is laid adrift the mountains of Appalachia. But Franco lets you forget about all that, never letting Lester Ballard (Scott Haze, one of the only actors who can say they broke out in a James Franco-directed film) get out of our sight. The most obvious influence is something like Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, which also took place in barren mountains and focused on the personal journey of one man, played by Franco, abandoned in the wild. But Ballard is a destitute piece of the kind of quality white trash that McCarthy loved milling out before he realized he wanted a Nobel Prize; Haze’s Ballard slowly descends into murderous and brilliantly-shot necrophilia. If anything, Franco’s Child of God reads immediately like an emotionally honest version of Craig Gillespie’s PG-13 farce, Lars and the Real Girl. Where Ryan Gosling’s discontent is carried around like a sour punchline and the subversiveness of a sex doll is watered down into twee nonsense, Franco chooses to film a devastatingly lonely Haze earnestly fuck a corpse while watched by stuffed animals he acquired from a fair. It’s a joke, you laugh a little. Then he starts killing people and loading them in a cave. The descent is what Franco is interested in: like Walter White or Tony Soprano, Ballard does horrible things and we are urged to watch because he comes about them through humane frustration. “The necrophilia is of course extreme and shocking, but it’s really getting at something more universal, which is intimacy and desire,” he said on the movie’s press junket.

The word “trash” showed up in a lot of reviews for Child of God and many saw Franco’s use of the novel as a needless act of provocation from a man without an overt agenda, the one assigned to him was self-aggrandizement. (A narrative not unlike Harmony Korine’s reputation with critics; coincidentally, Franco would go on to do his most celebrated acting work in Korine’s Spring Breakers.) But like Franco’s interest in homosexuality or in novels, his interest in Appalachian poverty, serial killing and necrophilia is purely narrative. They make great stories, which Franco makes. If anything, the sole provocation of Franco’s work is its earnest desire to upend the notion that art can provide any measure of self-assured depth. Which is really Sartre’s notion; you gotta do that work yourself.

“The necrophilia is of course extreme and shocking, but it’s really getting at something more universal”

Franco’s latest project, which debuted earlier this year at SXSW, is also a book adaptation, but one by an author slightly less revered by old people who review movies: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s The Disaster Artist. It’s an account of the production of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, and Franco plays Wiseau. Like Franco’s hero in Child of God, Wiseau is considered somewhat unhinged and is very much an outcast in his world. Personally curious, I went to a movie theater this weekend to witness the spectacle of Wiseau’s movie. People yelled out boring jokes and threw things at the screen because the low critical esteem the movie is held in gave them permission by management. Had they come here just to do that, I wondered. Couldn’t they yell at their own screens, at home? While the crimes that Haze’s character commits are vicious, no scene in Child of God is shot more viciously than the lynch mob that accosts Franco’s anti-hero. In fact, Franco casts himself as their ringleader, he flashes that trademark smile.

I could see the appeal of the The Room, and the uproarious contempt that Franco’s creative pursuits have faced mimic, somewhat, that of Wiseau. I wonder if it will be his attempt to relish in it, to play the artist who cares what people think, whose personal failures are popular jokes, the person we imagined Franco was, doing all of that art. There is a line in Palo Alto, the short story collection that Franco wrote and was turned into Gia Coppola’s debut feature, that I think of sometimes: “It was also a little sad to draw so much because I could see everything that was inside of me.” Franco’s pursuit of story for the sake of itself was something that opposed bald introspection. It’s remains about something else, something more sincere than that. Maybe The Disaster Artist will tell us what.

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