Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: An Open Letter to James Franco

By  · Published on March 1st, 2011

Dear Mr. Franco,

Before I say anything else, I just want to say, at the risk of sounding like a brown-nosing blogger writing a hypothetical letter to a movie star who most definitely will not read it, that I actually do appreciate what you’re trying to do. Many people would start a post like this heavy on the snark and in total dismissal of a star’s decision to construct their career as performance art. But I don’t. I think it’s kind of interesting. Kind of.

We know you’re talented. And we know you like to explore a variety of avenues of expression. It’s not just that you’re actor, but an actor who can play Aron Ralston and Alan Ginsberg, convincingly, in the same year. It’s not just that you’re a filmmaker, but the filmmaker that made Saturday Night, which is more enjoyable than anything SNL has produced in years. It’s not just that you’re pursuing a PhD, but…well, I’m actually not familiar with your scholarship, but I’m sure you’ll publish something someday. Anyway, this is to say I’m writing from the perspective of a reluctant fan.

But after Sunday night, you and everybody that respects you deserves a damn break.

Postmodern performance art is interesting. To take one’s own star/image status and play with its construction and cultural capital can be an insightful venture. But frankly, not everybody can do that kind of performance art successfully if they’re constantly in the spotlight, as it becomes hard to negotiate the distinction between a revelatory interrogation of star currency and simply finding less conventional avenues through which one can bank on one’s own stardom. You should know this. You sat face-to-face with Marina Abramovic for who-knows-how-long.

Of course, that is not to say you’re engaging in that brand of politically motivated Yugoslavian performance art. What you’re doing is quite different. However, almost all performance art has something essential in common: that is, the presence of the artist at the center of the work. So the performance artist always runs the risk of being criticized or dismissed as simply exercising their ego. The risk is magnified for the movie star. But I’m afraid you’re becoming less of an Andy Kaufman (or some other, more appropriate, analogy for what you’re trying to do that I can’t think of right now) and more of a Joaquin Phoenix. Don’t compete with Lady Gaga in creating an ever-evolving postmodern pop identity.

You will lose. And it won’t be pretty.

You’re spreading yourself far too thin. Even if you have a Warhol-style workforce churning out works of Franco ephemera (and Warhol is a far better analogy here than Kaufman because it seems like you’re trying to do Warhol in reverse: star-to-pop-artist rather than pop-artist-to-star), it might be a good idea to just get some fucking sleep every now and again. Ambition is a good thing, but not when that ambition overwhelms the quality of what it ultimately produces.

So you completely checked out of the Academy Awards, donning a stoner smug mug while your actual presence and participation in the ceremony is seen elsewhere, on Twitter. In theory, this is potentially interesting and particularly appropriate in the year that “the Facebook movie” got a heap of nominations and was supposedly the frontrunner. You situate stardom, entertainment, and celebrity outside of the classical avenues in which such things encounter value (awards ceremonies, television) and into social networking, where arguably the only relevant site of public opinion now resides (the Perez Hilton-esque scrawl on some of those photos sells it). Randy Newman seen from backstage is just as legitimate as Randy Newman performing for the big cameras.

This interpretation, I’ll admit, is a rather generous one considering I had no idea what the hell you were trying to do. Even if this is the case, that your hosting job was indeed some processed concoction of performance art and ever-present over-ambition that attempted to toy with the notion of Celebrity 2.0, then you missed a really good chance to do something cool. At best, you were a boring co-host for a meaningless and silly celebrity ritual; at worst, you ultimately embraced postmodernity as if it were a reflex through a failed attempt at critiquing it. Smirking with half-closed eyes isn’t a subversive move for the Oscars – the ceremony is nowhere near sacred enough for that to work. Millions of people watch it every year while admitting they hate watching it, and there’s already a high standard for carnivalesque subversion for celebrity awards shows. Your phoning-it-in act does little more than mirror the genuine disinterest of your audience. Performed indifference here isn’t revelatory, and wasn’t worth giving up any at actually entertaining. In struggling between being Jon Stewart or Marcel Duchamp, you instead settled with Robert DeNiro at the Golden Globes.

Why am I ranting about an empty performance at an even emptier ceremony? It’s because I believe that in celebrity performance art, not all performance art is good art simply by nature of being a calculated performance, and furthermore that performance art shouldn’t be half-assed. Ever. If this is what you’re going to do with your career, then continue to pursue something interesting. Have a high standard for yourself, because a bored and uninspired performance artist is no more interesting than a bored and uninspired movie star.

Let’s take a look, for instance, at the current manifestations of “James Franco” (TM) to see how one can express the exact same critical ideas about 21st century celebrity culture in more and less interesting ways. So you want to take on celebrity self-infatuation in a self-reflexive media landscape? This is a cool way to do it! But teaching a production class about yourself at Yale? Not so much.

So you want to explore and deconstruct the arbitrary limitations placed upon art objects? Making a 12-hour meta-documentary about the production of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho as a museum installation is a cool way to do it, but sleeping through the Oscars and posting pictures of you and Oprah on Twitter isn’t. (Yes, admittedly I might be reading too much into the twitpics, but when you construct your career as performance art, then there is no distinction between yourself, your career, and that performance, thus everything you do is game for critical scrutiny.)

Pursuing a PhD in English at Yale? That’s cool, but do you actually plan to pursue academia? To publish? To speak at conferences? To TA for 100-level classes full of dozens of indifferent freshmen? As a PhD student myself I’m quite befuddled with how you have the time to seriously pursue this (in fact, I should be grading right now instead of writing this). That is, of course, unless you’re not serious at all. That whole grad school thing seems to be emblematic of what you’re trying to do writ large. Starting a lot of projects is ambitious and exciting. Having none of them come to meaningful fruition is sad, not to mention frustrating for people who’d be happy with one of the numerous occupations that you give passing interest to.

This is all to respectfully ask that you reign it in a bit. Despite the overexposure, people do like you; but keep in mind there is such a thing as too much James Franco, especially too much meta-reflexive James Franco. While what you started doing sounded interesting at first, the holes are definitely beginning to show. Stay with the intriguing projects, and actually devote yourself whole-heartedly to whatever it is that you’re doing. After all, every meaningful performance requires an invested audience.


Landon Palmer

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