More than two hundred emotionally disturbed young people attended the opening night premiere of “James FrancoFest,” IFC’s weeklong celebration of all things James Franco. To understand how significant that is, three years ago I attended a screening at their “KurosawaFest,” where there was only one other person in the audience. He was nice, but pretty old, and I’m fairly confident he died halfway through. The audience at FrancoFest was younger and more stylish, including a lady with a very visible silkscreened thong, and bearded guy in the front row who I think was Rasputin. They had all come here to see “astonishingly prolific polymath” James Franco, not “Pineapple Express James Franco,” “Shia LeBeouf James Franco,” or “the James Franco who once walked around Paris with a dick on his nose.” Franco is a lot of things: a great actor, a sometimes activist, and a funny enough guy. What he is not, however, is an “astonishingly prolific polymath” who deserves his own eight-day festival celebrating his eight hours spent in a MFA program.
Yes, I know Franco is getting his PhD, as well as some MFAs (he made that very clear in the Q & A). And some of his performances, like in Spring Breakers and 127 Hours, are hilarious, intelligent, and precise. To be clear: I don’t hate James Franco (but in the “I don’t hate anyone” kind of way – does that count?) I do, however, find it totally ridiculous and silly and probably insulting if I think about it that IFC dedicated more than a week to showcase his ten minute oeuvre. Franco is not a Renaissance man. His work as a director feels sloppy, bloated, and insensitive. Small child gets butt-raped and likes it: No. Straight man plays gay character, feels awkward: don’t care. Franco examines his own homosexual anxiety for three-hundred-and-thirty minutes on camera: no no no no no don’t care don’t care no no no implode.
15 films were shown at FrancoFest, and I’ve decided to highlight the top five. To be honest, Franco’s work perfectly complements “indie film” culture, where adolescent ideology trumps narrative form and idealistic blowhards obscure actual emotion. But whatever, who cares, enough about my feelings. It’s FrancoFest time. Onto the dongs!
1. The Feast of Stephen
The story of a gay child who gets raped and likes it, The Feast of Stephen is James Franco’s official foray into the world of MFA filmmaking/nonsense. Based on an Anthony Hecht poem, this five-minute film opens with a tortured gay adolescent, staring longingly at the (fantasized) flopping schlongs of the basketball team around him. The team then gang-rapes the teen, smears his face with dog shit, before running away to the tune of James Franco’s maniacal background laughter. But fear not! The shit-smeared rape victim then smiles at the camera to tell us he enjoyed the experience, dispelling any myths we might have that “rape is a bad idea” and “NYU is a good one.” Here’s the full film for your enjoyment.
2. Interior. Leather Bar.
The headliner for FrancoFest, Interior. Leather Bar. is a self-described “film about filmmaking,” which is great shorthand for “nothing about nothing” produced by “people with no problems.” For Leather Bar, James Franco paired up with queer filmmaker Travis Mathews to imagine the forty minutes cut from Cruising, William Friedkin’s 1970’s thriller about gay S & M subculture. Franco recreates the sex scenes lost, then spends the remainder of the fifty-five minutes of this half-doc/half fiction film slurping up praise from the fawning thespians around him. It’s obsequious and embarrassing, but I’ll give Franco this – Interior. Leather Bar. accurately captures queer life, featuring five minutes of actual sex and sixteen thousand hours of talking about it.
Interestingly, Franco spends most of his time here with Val Lauren, a straight male actor “forced” to work in this gay pseudo-porn. And as Franco explains in a ten/ten thousand minute monologue, he’s very interested in why some straight people are so threatened by gay sex. Pardon me while I dropkick the snooze button. Although nominally about queer sexuality, Interior. Leather Bar. is ultimately the story of one straight man’s homosexual anxiety, previously seen in Every Book Ever, Every Movie Ever, and Civilization: The History.
3. Spring Breakers
Finally, a film featuring James Franco and starring James Franco that’s not ultimately about: James Franco. Directed by Harmony Korine, critics across the board applauded Franco’s performance as Alien, a white rapper with a Party City grill. I actually have to agree – Franco comes across as deeply funny in this one, never once slipping into improv-level caricature. And if you haven’t seen Spring Breakers, it’s worth checking out. A thoughtful riff on American…materialism? Shallowness? Boobs?, it’s simultaneously ridiculous and digestible. “I am not from this planet” James Franco screams, and you can’t tell whether he’s referring to the setting, his character, or the one time he filmed a naked lady machete fight.
4. The Broken Tower
James Franco’s NYU MFA Filmmaking thesis, The Broken Tower, explores the life and times of – you’ve guessed it – gay drunk poet, Hart Crane. Neither particularly compelling nor profoundly coherent, this black-and-white movie sometimes feels like it needs a piss-sheet, wet with its own grandiosity. Similar to all the hackneyed adolescent biopics that preceded it, The Broken Tower includes “conventional parents” who “just want their child to make money” and a “young artist too brilliant for the world to understand.” Sob sob sob, hand me a tissue, or actually another movie.
The story of gay actor Sal Mineo’s last living day, Sal is less offensive than it is jaw-droppingly-to-the-jaw-droppingliest-point-of-a-drop boring. At approximately ninety minutes long, the film never generates more narrative energy than, say, a tortoise at a methadone clinic. For Sal, Franco decided to capture the quotidian un-dramatic details of Mineo’s final moments. Films don’t need to have splashy sex sequences and bloody battles to generate narrative excitement, but they should at least try to be watchable. Franco could’ve picked up a few cues from last year’s Fruitvale Station, which followed the last-day-in-a-life format without making me want to kill myself (Correction: it did make me want to kill myself, but for other, more thoughtful reasons). On a separate note, there’s a strong part of me that wonders why Franco has made so many films about gay people, and almost exclusively, gay men. I don’t care about Franco’s sexuality, but I wonder why he’s so drawn to stories about gay people in crisis. It can feel weird and appropriative, an easy way to gain some artistic edge. But I can’t totally accuse him nor can I completely blame him. He showed up to his own film festival in a Forever 21 cardigan, so he’s got a loooot of edge to make up for.
There were many excellent features at IFC Center last week, including Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me and a lunatic in a mink reciting Shakespeare outside the ticket window. “FrancoFest,” while highly attended, lacked so much of that imagination. As an actor, Franco’s a grown-up. As a director, he has a long way to go. I’m hopeful though. If Franco features less dongs on camera but more dongs on faces, then yes, change is possible.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.