It’s become as mandatory a part of the film festival experience as queueing, champagne hangovers and the swinging lanyard affixed to one’s neck: if a new James Franco joint isn’t to be found in the program, you’re probably not looking hard enough.
Out in the real world, the Oscar-nominated actor still functions primarily — if not exclusively — as, well, an Oscar-nominated actor. Among the paying public, awareness of his extramural activities may be limited chiefly to his being the guy who bombed hard at the Oscars that one time; some may have heard of an artsy endeavor via an interview, but would be hard pressed to specify what it was. I’m certain most would be surprised to hear that he’s directed 11 feature films, in addition to any number of shorts and hard-to-classify experiments; those whose tastes run expressly toward multiplex fare would be more surprised still to find out what the mildly eccentric-seeming star of “Oz the Great and Powerful” thinks about in his spare time.
In the bubble-like realm of festival cinema, however, it’s Franco’s mainstream acting gigs that increasingly seem like the sideshow. In the face of general critical reticence — outright skepticism, in some cases — his restlessly pursued status as a self-styled auteur seems to be taking root, if only through sheer force of will. When someone makes films as persistently and insistently as Franco does, it becomes churlish, even snobbish, not to call him a filmmaker, whether you think he’s a particularly good one or not.
But if critics are largely agnostic on Franco as an off-camera artist, top festival programmers have been fully converted. Scarcely a major festival has passed in 2013 without a film in which he’s involved in some capacity. First came Sundance, which premiered “Interior. Leather Bar.,” the meta-fictional homage to William Friedkin’s “Cruising” that he directed with Travis Mathews. The festival also unveiled “Kink,” the explicit S&M-themed documentary on which he acted as a producer. (As if to drive home the sleaze theme, he also hit the Sundance red carpet for porn biopic “Lovelace,” in which he has a supporting role.)
Bolstered by reviews that, at worst, highlighted the film’s curiosity value, “Interior. Leather Bar.” has since done the rounds at several other festivals — including Berlin, a fest that has been kind to his short work in the past. Berlin also hosted the premiere of another effort from Franco’s production company Rabbit Bandini: writer/director Carter’s “Maladies,” a maddeningly precious comedy of sorts about a socially dysfunctional artist played by… you guessed it… Franco.
We move on to Cannes, where Franco’s directorial brand got its highest endorsement to that point from the festival world: his sweat-stained William Faulkner adaptation “As I Lay Dying” was selected for the Un Certain Regard section, placing him in the company of such big-name auteurs as Sofia Coppola and Claire Denis.
And now, Franco’s all over the fall festival circuit, too. His latest solo directorial effort “Child of God,” a Cormac McCarthy adaptation this time, is having its world premiere at Venice. The Italian fest has previously looked kindly on Franco’s output — his Van Sant-aping Sal Mineo biopic “Sal” premiered in a sidebar there two years ago — but they’re being especially generous hosts this time, becoming the first of the A-list fests to include Franco in their Competition lineup, where he’ll compete against the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Errol Morris.
Obviously, “Child of God” is moving on to the vast, all-inclusive marketplace of Toronto. Less expected, however, is that it’s also cracked the more selectively curated lineup for this year’s New York Film Festival, whose reputation as something of an auteurist members’ club may not be borne out in all their selections (Richard Curtis’ “About Time,” for example), but it does prove how seriously Franco is now being taken across the festival circuit.
And that, as they say in the ads, is not all. “Palo Alto,” another new film from the Rabbit Bandini stable, is also playing Venice. And while this debut feature from Gia Coppola (yes, another one from the clan) isn’t directed, written or directly produced by Franco, it has his mark on it in another significant way: it’s adapted from his book of short stories. Oh, and Franco stars in it, of course. (The film was also included in today’s Telluride lineup announcement, so in case you were worried that Franco had missed a big stop on his 2013 festival tour: nope, he’s got it covered.)
We’ll know shortly whether “Palo Alto” and, in particular, “Child of God” are worthy of the esteemed company into which Franco has pole-vaulted himself this year. It’d be nice to say that the latter, an ambitious adaptation of a very challenging novel, is more than just a commendable effort from a hard worker, and rather represents the arrival of a genuinely vital directorial voice on the American independent scene.
Because up to this point — and I say this with no malice or prejudice — I haven’t quite seen it myself, and I’m far from the only one. Back at Cannes, “As I Lay Dying” marked a personal best for Franco. Impassioned and not without some formal chutzpah, it was an almost inevitably problematic adaptation of a dauntingly difficult text, but it wasn’t the creative faceplant for which many critics seemed to be sharpening their claws in advance.
Perhaps even more of a victory is that, on Sept. 27, it’ll become Franco’s first directorial effort to receive a detectable theatrical release in the US, a breakthrough that’ll be consolidated when “Sal,” distributed by Tribeca Film, follows suit in November, more than two years after its festival premiere. Perhaps the days of Franco’s directorial identity being limited to the cosseted festival sphere are coming to a close.
Still, I’m not convinced “better than expected” — or even “releasable” — is good enough for the second-highest tier of competition at the world’s most prestigious film festival. “As I Lay Dying” succeeded in raising expectations for “Child of God,” which arguably still needs to exceed expectations to justify the festival laurels it already wears by virtue of mere selection.
Considering that none of his directorial efforts has met with outright acclaim, Franco has had an accelerated ride to the top of the festival tree. It’s not hard to see why festival programmers have been seduced. Even A-list auteurs, for the most part, aren’t terribly sexy red-carpet fodder. So when a young, charismatic, good-looking Hollywood star goes behind the camera and obliges with a steady stream of serious-minded, reasonably festival-friendly creations, it’s hardly surprising that they form an orderly queue behind him. Even the most cinephilic festival directors have publicity to consider, too.
But the sudden, meme-like ubiquity of his name on the festival circuit seems both patronizing to Franco and unfair on the equally hard-working, up-and-coming talents on the art house scene who would kill for, say, a Competition slot at Venice. Which is not to pre-judge “Child of God,” but to note that it arrives on the Lido without the groundwork that’s been laid by other filmmakers also making their debut in the Euro-fest premier league this year. Xavier Dolan, for example, is a filmmaker less prolific and even more precocious than Franco. His rise through the festival ranks certainly hasn’t been hurt by his more photogenic qualities, but it’s been driven principally by palpable critical chatter around even his most uneven films.
Until Franco’s films start similarly walking the talk, his blanket inclusion at every major film festival going — hey, perhaps we’re not far from the reality of a dedicated James Franco Film Festival — will always be regarded with a certain amount of cynicism. Here’s hoping the tide turns this fall.