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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: James Franco is … Okay

I’m mystified by the accolades that have been heaped upon James Franco over the last few years.  That’s not to say that I don’t think he’s a solid and talented actor because he surely is, but I’m not seeing the “genius” of his performances that others are seeing.  It’s especially odd that he’s held in such esteem at this point in his career because I don’t remember very many critics talking about his chops when he was starring in Tristan and Isolde or Annapolis.  I actually quite liked him in Nicolas Cage’s 2002 Sonny, but not many other folks were doing back flips over him back then.

It seems like it all started when Franco starred as the drug dealer Saul in The Pineapple Express, the painfully overrated stoner comedy that was short on laughs and excitement.  All of a sudden it was like people realized Franco could do comedy and so they heaped praise upon this performance.  You’d think they’d never seen his hilarious and poignant turn as Daniel Desario in Freaks and Geeks!  

Then Franco follows up the best reviews of his career with a “serious” role in Milk, in which he is out-acted and overshadowed by both Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch.  These roles, combined with bit parts in films like Date Night and a fledgling writing career (not to mention his performance art shtick on General Hospital), have made Franco into something of a phenomenon.  He’s widely respected for his “artistry” and for his risk-taking, despite the fact that he has yet to give a performance that I could truly call amazing (although I hear he’s a lock for a nomination for 127 Hours).

So when I sat down to watch Franco take on the difficult task of playing one of my favorite poets in the film Howl, I felt a great deal of trepidation.  You see, Ginsberg’s Howl is one of the more important things I’ve read in my life.  Indeed, for most aspiring authors, Howl could be called a turning point or a touchstone in their literary lives.  I felt moved to tears by the poem, felt like I understood something that I hadn’t before.  It gutted me and continues to pierce my heart every time I read or head it.  It is almost uniformly accepted as one of the great poems – and great pieces of art – of the 20th century.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who really cares all that much about the lives of artists who create great works.  I appreciate the art they create, but unless their life was particularly fascinating, I don’t really care to know that much about them.  For example, I think David Fincher is one of the great film directors out there, but I don’t really care to know about him or his opinions on anything other than the art he creates.  But Hollywood seems to have a fascination with making movies about people who create things; for some reason filmmakers love to point their camera at an actor sitting at a typewriter or in front of an empty canvas.  Maybe it’s because I spend so much time writing that I don’t find the actual act of writing to be a particularly thrilling cinematic experience. Creating something is an interior act that comes from within.  The joy, the frustration, the despondence, the aggravation…it all happens in one’s mind, it’s not something that can be portrayed accurately in film.  But that won’t stop Hollywood from trying.

Howl has quite a few scenes of Franco typing with purpose, but it tries to convey the experience of reading Howl as this animated fantasy of swirling colors and spirits gliding around cities.  But it muddies the message a bit.  We start with Ginsberg writing the piece with a rather blank look on his face, but to make the experience of creation feel more immediate and cinematic, the filmmakers decide to insert this animated rendering of how the reader feels.

What is the perspective there?  Are we with the writer or are we merely readers?  Because if we’re merely readers, then we can just, you know, read the damn poem.  Or listen to Franco read it, which he does, in fits and starts over the course of the film.

Therein lies my major issue with the film, which for all its faults is interesting enough: I never once believed that I was watching Allen Ginsberg reading the poem.  I was always aware of the fact that Franco was playing Ginsberg.  It’s not so much that Franco is too famous or that he doesn’t look anything like Ginsberg (both true), but that he seems to be straining, trying so hard to act that it falls flat.  It’s not a bad performance, it’s just one that is imbued a bit too much with a combination of hero-worship and a desire to show his acting chops.  

This is especially evident when Ginsberg is reading the poem for the first time in San Francisco, and Franco reads the poem in such a way that suggest the characters knows he’s written a masterpiece.  I don’t care how proud Ginsberg was of the poem – and the fact that it was, indeed, a masterpiece – but any writer who reads his work to a crowd for the first time wouldn’t be so confident.  It shows an awareness on the actor’s part of the greatness of the poem, which takes away from a moment where we could see Ginsberg’s humility or discomfort.

The scenes that work the best in Howl are the courtroom scenes, which Franco/Ginsberg, is not a part of.  The defendant is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet who actually published Howl in 1956, and the charge was obscenity.  Jon Hamm plays Ferlinghetti’s attorney and David Strathairn plays the prosecutor.  Maybe it’s just because I love Hamm and Strathairn so much, but watching the two of them go toe to toe and questioning witnesses about what makes a poem relevant and what makes a work of art valid or obscene…well, I wish the whole movie was about that trial.

Instead, we get glimpses into Ginsberg’s personal life and the various inspirations for what would become Howl, but anybody who has ever read On the Road or studied the Beats at all will not be learning anything new here.  And if you don’t know who the Beats are, then you might not be interested in the first place.  So it makes me wonder who the audience for this film is.  Sure, I’m interested in the subject matter, but I’m familiar with the material, so what use do I have for a film that merely repurposes that material?  The courtroom scenes are the only parts of the film that I hadn’t read a significant amount about or seen dramatized in either book or film.

But I have to say that I admire the fact that Franco is using his star power to make films like this, rather than starring in a prequel to Planet of the Apes or something…wait, what’s that?  Oh, he is starring in a film called Rise of the Apes?  Nevermind then.

In all seriousness, I don’t have any issues with Franco as an actor.  I think he’s fine.  His presence doesn’t assure me a quality film or a disastrous one, rather he makes me shrug and go, “oh, cool, he’s not bad.”  And he’s not bad.  Before we lived in a world that thrived on hyperbole, we used to have a category for people who were pretty talented, but not amazing or terrible.  I believe that category was, “not bad” or “okay.”

James Franco is … okay.

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14 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: James Franco is … Okay”

  1. Keil Shults says:

    While I agree with most of what you’ve said, I’ve never really seen him as a highly lauded or widely revered actor (until the 127 Hours screenings, which is a film that neither of us appears to have seen yet). Looking forward to seeing it though.

  2. austin111 says:

    Franco is interesting. I don’t think he’s necessarily that amazing but he’s usually solid and he has a nice laid back quality that’s a kind of gift. I think the material of 127 Hours gives almost any truly decent actor a fighting chance of being great, because it’s a great one man show — a guy who gets caught in one of the worst predicaments you could and finally has the courage to do what is necessary to survive, taking off his arm. Still you have to say that this is virtually the same thing some animals lower down the chain do when they get a limb or paw caught in a steel trap. They gnaw it off to escape.

  3. Hallick says:

    I think I feel the same way about Franco. I like the guy and it doesn’t really put me off that people blast his praises for stuff like “Pineapple Express” even though I still don’t see anything a dozen other actors couldn’t have done as well or better. Part of it for me is that I’ve read so many great things about him that now when I see him in any given role, I have this semi-brainwashed belief in his special greatness that never pays off, but I still sorta believe it must be true somewhere in that frame that I just can’t see for myself. I walked out of “Pineapple Express” thinking that Danny McBride stole the whole movie, but the rest of the world said Franco was genius in it, so I wound up thinking, “I didn’t see THAT, but they did, and it’d be nice if he were genius in it, so why not go along with the feel-good buzz?”.

    It’s like being told a certain actress is the sexiest woman alive, and you might think she’s attractive and all, but you’ve never ONCE had a sexual fantasy about her. Not ever. And yet, if somebody asked you who’s the sexiest woman alive, you might put her on the list just because the rest of the world KNOWS she is.

  4. Al E Ase says:

    Nice one Hallick.

    Still it gives pause when you see the guy not only get cast but get praised by Danny Boyle for a film in which he’s the only actor on frame. That’s one hell of an endorsement, so I suspect that Noah’s piece is inherently flawed because of that one glaring omission.

    Society loves myth. Franco is consciously building one, whether he’s particularly talented or not. It’s almost performance art, and it’s eaten up because it harkens back to the ideal of the special artist.

  5. Keil Shults says:

    I think people (critics, in particular) love it when a seemingly pretty-boy actor, who could easily get by on looks alone, proves to have a mind of his own and a desire for challenging material.

  6. Milana says:

    You forgot his Spiderman role which was probably the one that put him on the blockbuster map. I like his edginess and his way of doing what he wants to do with his life. He’s inspiring. Doesn’t settle for anything. I can’t wait to see 127 Hours and Howl.

  7. George says:

    I would say the interest in the life of an artist vs. just the interest in the art depends to some extent on the type of life the artist leads and the sort of interest his/her catalogue of work generates (mostly) long after it’s complete. It’s why, say, there might be a lot of excitement over a movie about Alfred Hitchcock’s life vs. the life of say, Michael Curtiz. Which is not to say that someone couldn’t make a perfectly compelling movie about the life of Michael Curtiz, by the way. But I have to disagree entirely with the statement that Hollywood has never managed to make a movie that effectively dramatized or brought to life the unique qualities of the creative act. Really? Never? Never ever? Not in a century’s-plus of trying? Who’s engaged in hyperbole now? PS — Franco, gifted actor. Praise comes and goes, hope he enjoys it while it lasts.

  8. Noah Forrest says:

    George, not sure if I said that Hollywood has NEVER managed to effectively dramatize the creative act…but now that you mention it, I’d say it probably hasn’t. Film is a visual medium while the act of creating includes so many components that literally cannot be visualized or filmed. Actors can emote all they want, but it still doesn’t tell me about the wheels turning inside their heads, the ways in which writing a word or a sentence makes them feel. I think it might have been done with a few scenes in musical biopics, where someone plays a chord and someone else says, “oh, hey, how about this?” But with writing, I don’t know that it’s been done effectively or even accurately. But if you can come up with an example, I’d love to be proven wrong.

  9. Diana McCartney says:

    I totally agree, it seems that critics DO only focus on the pretty-boy looks of Mr Franco. He is an extremely talented actor and he deserves more praise every now and then. A great actor is someone who is convening in everything he/she does, and Franco seems to hit the nail right on the head with every performance! He is BRILLIANT in 127 hours, I suggest you “critics” see it once it comes to the big screen… it’s extremely inspiring, he is an extremely gifted actor, which are hard to find these days!

  10. George says:

    Maybe I made a leap too far reading the lines “…it’s not something that can be portrayed accurately in film. But that won’t stop Hollywood from trying”? Well anyway, you say yes to never in the reply, so here we go. I know my way around the idea of film as a visual medium, but as you sort of point out by discussing just the actorly component, there’s so much more to it than just the composition of a shot. More to it than editing. More to it than script. More to it than performance, costume, etc. etc. etc. Taken all together and delivering the kind of uniquely immersive experience only movies can offer, are you really suggesting that the world’s best cinema artisans have never captured — well, let’s just say at least SOME — of the wonder and mystery of artistic creation on film? I don’t wanna be lazy and reprint a Google list of “10 Best Movies About Writers” or what have you — and truthfully, the movie about artistic creation that came first to mind for me was exactly one of those music biopics you’re talking about, “Amadeus.” The scene at the end when a dying Mozart dictates, part by incredible part, the mass to Salieri. But we’re talking “writing” movies? Well, I think “Barton Fink” reveals a lot about what the creative process is like (in some of the bad ways)…but there’s so much more, too, to movies “about” writing, than just identifying that elusive moment of creation. There’s how the writing affects others, changes the world, destroys its creator, fails to ever manifest itself to the author’s satisfaction (Prick Up Your Ears), on and on and on. I guess I’m just saying that, as just one element of the human experience — like love, hate, war, business, everything else — movies have done as good a job with them as the rest of our puzzling existence. There’s no proving you wrong, of course — if you haven’t seen it, if you haven’t felt it, it hasn’t ever been there for you. Fair enough. It’s been there for me. Many times.

  11. If you’d known Ginsberg, as I did, very well, for about 20 years, you’d be much more impressed with Franco’s acting job. It was uncanny. It has nothing to do with how pretty he is, or what other films he’s done; it has to do with how he inhabited Ginsberg’s mannerisms, rhythms, breath, and personal gravity. It’s an amazing performance.

  12. Hey there , wonderful article .. I m truly interested in this topic keep on writing and thank you !

  13. Alan says:

    He’s beautiful. That is all. Literally.

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Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon