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Poetry Wed Mar 05 2014

James Franco, Behind the Celluloid Curtain

All the people came to see James Franco. But the James Franco who showed up wasn't who anyone had come to see. Some people were happy and some people were sad, and some people didn't know what to do.

Upon arriving at the poetry reading, brought to Chicago by the joint efforts of the Chicago Humanities Festival and The Poetry Foundation, I could feel the excitement in Northwestern Law School's Thorne Auditorium; one of those stiletto-shaped rooms that scoops down into a proscenium stage. It was filled with chatter like a shook box of cicadas. Making my way towards a seat near the front I stepped through three languages, many perfumes, many levels of sincere excitement and faux disdain, disinterest and ambivalence.

franco_james_461x250.jpgIn front of me, folding chairs were filled by people who, I posited, had waited a long time, out in the cold, maybe, to get in before anyone else. They were a mix of twentysomethings and teenage girls, but the mean age ran on the younger side. They were James Franco Fans, with a capitol F. They'd brought glossy photographs with them and I recognized the need to clarify in the program that Franco would only be signing copies of his book of poetry, Directing Herbert White.

A door opened and Poetry Foundation president Robert Polito stepped on stage. We screamed and cheered because we knew who was coming next; and in he walked, just after Robert and just before Frank Bidart, James Franco.

The three men settled into uncomfortable-looking chairs that made me wonder who had picked them out. They took pulls of Dasani water. Robert Polito spoke, briefly. Then James Franco began to talk about his poetry, and the poetry of Frank Bidart.

He spoke in the back of his throat with none of the clarity and training one might expect from an actor. He sort of laid himself out on his chair. Spread his legs, put his hands on his knees, tucked his chin in and looked down when he spoke. It made it appear that his eyes were closed; sometimes they were, when he hummed after the word or turn of phrase he was looking for. He had on a plaid button-down with the sleeves rolled up. He looked like a man searching for something comfortable to hang onto.

Frank Bidart sat with the diffidence of a poet accustomed to readings and talkbacks. He was attentive, glancing to the audience with humor at moments that called for it. He clearly adored Franco's process, and Frank cued me in to some humor that might have been lost had I not noticed a little smile wink across his face.

Franco seemed more serious, less at home, but altogether present and serious. Unpretentious. Remarkably stoic.

It was clear by the sixth poem he read from "Directing Herbert White" that there is a great pressure to celebrity, and James Franco feels it. He writes often about the celebrities who didn't fit the system but who have somehow become its most capitalized icons - Marilyn Monroe, Sal Mineo, Lindsay Lohan, James Dean, Marlon Brando.

In a tribute to Heath Ledger, he wonders whether we killed him, on top of drugs and the acting. He includes himself in that "we"; I felt like he was saying, "I, too, am excited and mystified by actors I love."

He is an intentionally frank and unassuming wordsmith. He prefers long takes to quick ones, citing the "complacency" of audiences today who expect polished performances, clean resolution. His description of long takes: a moment when the editor, director, actor and audience-member can all experience something together. Sitting together in not-time; no longer waiting for, but rather basking in something great, real or authentic. He is idealistic, scholarly; he pursues artistic integrity, he flirts with sensationalism and elementary school prose. His poems sound like James Franco telling stories with emphasis; however, something about James Franco telling stories with emphasis sounds perfectly fine on the ear.

Maybe what surprised and titillated me most was how serious Franco was about all this. Frank Bidart spoke about the "arrogance of the maker" and while James Franco nodded and agreed with this trope, I couldn't help but feel that they were both being very humble.

Frank is a disgustingly fine writer. These two men are profound makers, unabashed makers, creative lovers, maybe. I can't think of an instance where a celebrity of Franco's box office draw has sought the company and inspiration of a Frank Bidart, someone so off the beaten path, so messy, so personal, but with such an oeuvre and confidence. They're not arrogant - they're simply doing what they want to be doing. It's a simple concept, but one that frequently astonishes the media. I remember when it was confounding that Anthony Hopkins would pursue a career in painting.

Throughout the night, I often felt I was sitting on the periphery of an intimate discussion I didn't belong in. I found myself beaming, grinning, chuckling, as if far away. Their understanding of one another is a really sweet love story. They're each the man the other has always wanted to be - the filmmaker, the poet, the celebrity.

Frank and James created their own mythos throughout the night, repeating and reiterating bits of story that would become their little legend of anonymous inspiration (James read Frank's poem in class), mutual attraction (an eight-hour dinner that closed the restaurant long after hours) and excited creation (James made a film of Frank's poem, "Herbert White").

Both Frank and James tell this story:

When Frank was at Harvard, he wrote "Herbert White" and performed it at a reading. The poem is the personal narrative of a compulsive woman-killer. The voice is first person. The reading was held in a great hall that had one door, from an old wooden stairwell. Before he read, Frank presented the piece as extremely fictional. Confessionals were popular at the time, and Frank didn't want to be mistaken for a compulsive woman-killer. His introduction did not save those who came late, however, and mid-way through the sexually violent monologue Frank heard the "clop-clop-clop" of a woman making her way up the stairs. She sat down, listened for a few lines, and left, obviously disturbed; and Frank heard her descending: "clop-clop-clop".

James and Frank each tell a slightly different version of the story, and it becomes a piece of their myth, though it began as only a part of the myth of "Herbert White." But now James Franco is a part of that myth. As is Michael Shannon, who starred in it. The myth grows. I watched it grow. That was intimate for everyone, I think. We came to see James Franco and saw something much more, and more interesting, too.

He hadn't looked up much, though, it's true. He hadn't looked up and the girls in the two front rows looked nervous because of this; they were taking pictures on their phones. They'd come for him, after all.

From every angle possible, at every point of the evening, they did their best to capture the actor and his idol, mentor and inspiration. There was no scrambling for phones, as the phones never left the air. Phones would only come down to determine the proper filter before posting to Instagram; they might come down to scribble hearts above Franco's head before sending off a Snapchat; they might come down to post to Facebook, or to like a friend's post to Facebook about their post to Facebook. They chose between hundreds of pictures. When Franco smiled a Billboard smile, which wasn't often, they chose from thousands.

There were no moments these attendees found too banal or gauche or minimal to document. Hand gestures have never been so well covered; eyebrow raises, covered; the adjustment of microphones, covered. There were also no moments they found engaging enough to glance at above their phones. I counted three dropped devices at each wave of applause, the girls forgetting that they were holding phones at all.

The photographs that accompany articles about James Franco feature either a brash smile or a writerly stare into the lens (and the soul). From my two hours with him, I don't think James Franco does those things in intimate company.

I assumed that these girls had come to hear James Franco speak, to see James Franco gab and smile. What I began to realize, however, was that they had come to see a man who did not exist. My revelation when it had all ended and I scurried outside to check whether my car had been ticketed, was that I had seen behind a curtain I didn't know existed; I had met a man and seen a bit of his soul, in the way he sat, in the way he drank his water, in the way he really loved Frank Bidart. Really, I'd only seen a few moments of the "real" James Franco, a three-dimensional James Franco. Nevertheless, it was a James Franco I identified with and was inspired by.

He said before leaving that he would always remember the night he'd had. I believe him. I had no pictures on my phone, no images in my mind save his craning look sideways toward Frank. When Frank began talking, James got real serious; and when James began talking, Frank smiled.

It was love; just love. I wish I could have captured that from my seat.

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Ian Belknap / March 6, 2014 9:18 AM

I intend no disrespect to the author when I observe the following:

Thompson, you're insane.

I was there that evening.

And maybe I was seated too far from the stage to fall under the thrall of the megawatt star glitter that has so clearly compromised your ability to see clearly. And I will concede that I am a contrarian by nature, and so am less susceptible to Professions of Artistic Super-Seriousness by Vacant-Eyed Pretty Boys With a Stake in Convincing Us of Their Enduring Achievements.

And maybe I am the writer/performer of a show entitled Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull.

But I'm here to tell you: man, did you get it wrong.

The body of non-acting Franco work is like one of those sugar skulls you see on Dia de los Muertos - from the outside, a sparkling marvel, on the inside, a brain-free and purposeless brick of of sugar.

If you believe you saw a legitimate literary talent at work, then you have much to learn about what constitutes real writing (though I concur that Bidart is a "disgustingly fine writer"). If you believe that in an auditorium packed with a thousand star-fuckers can have qualified as "intimate company," you have much to learn about what constitutes actual connection between humans. If you believe your repeated assertion that there was inspiration to be wrung from the slack, under-imagined hog slop of Franco's work - if you believe you witnessed him as "altogether present and serious" and - most baffling and laughable "unpretentious," you have far, far to go in assessing the dubious motivations of half-assed charlatans. Franco is the fullest embodiment of pretentiousness ever to wriggle from the fetid birth canal of the current cultural moment.

I took Bidart at his word that his association with Franco springs from the desire of a man in his waning years to seek after new arenas of experience, which his entree into the Dream Factory via his new pal has undoubtedly done.

But seeing Franco read next to an actual poet of estimable gifts was like watching a world famous little boy delivering a eulogy while wearing his father's suit - the man-child can labor mightily to convince us of his seriousness of purpose, of his weighty ideas Totally Grown-Up Abilities, but anybody watching this man-child - really watching him and hearing fully what he is saying (as opposed to the miasma of celebrity swirling about him) - recognizes him for a fraud. He may be a well-meaning fraud, even. But he is a fraud without question.

It is precisely this kind of wrongheaded, uncritical, and hagiographic coverage that permit this halfwit to keep jumping to the front of the access-queue, netting him gallery shows he does not deserve, heavily attended readings of his work that should never have been published, and a billion-eyed lapping at his every footfall along the red carpet.

Alex Thompson / March 7, 2014 9:55 PM


I appreciate your thorough and passionate response. I looked you up, I wish I could have seen your show. I’m sure I would have liked it very much. I, like you, have had a deep dismissive cynicism in regards to James Franco (and all celebrity “artists”).

I think you misunderstood my description of intimate company to include the Instagramming Francophiles seated in front of me – I arrived and left the event nonplussed by that particular culture of consumption.

The difference in our experiences comes down to taste, probably. I could write as verbosely as you against an advocate of Gravity, Kanye West or poutine. I would feel like I was “right” in saying that Gravity, for instance, was an objectively “bad” movie, but I know that other opinions exist, even from people I respect and know well. You have no reason to respect me, not knowing me or agreeing with me in even a slight sense of the word (except for Bidart, a “disgustingly fine writer”).

My consumption of culture is influenced by a mix of external and internal contexts; I have a set of ideals and ethics I associate with my own creation of art, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that not every creator’s ethic is the same, or the same as mine. The things that I love are not always the same things that I aspire to. On another Wednesday, Franco’s poetry might have rang false; on this particular Wednesday, it did not.

I suppose I’m just writing to acknowledge your obvious intellect and your ability to deconstruct James Franco. I had read Franco’s book of short stories and found it unremarkable and symptomatic of something you described all-too-well in your comment above. I went to his Hollywood Forever exhibit in Los Angeles and was bored and almost insulted by it. But this was a long time ago.

Something in my affect and process has shifted over the past few years. I am approaching things I might previously have hated without qualification with a desire to understand and empathize. I find this much more exciting and interesting. You may be a “contrarian by nature” and I can read that clearly; but I don’t think anyone really gets it “wrong”; and pretentiousness is a hard nail to hit straight without grazing a thumb.

Your response was excellent; it might have been published as well. And look – now it has been! If my wrongheaded, uncritical, and hagiographic coverage can at least inspire your contrarian ire, well then, I think I may have done something right after all.


Daphne Sidor / March 9, 2014 11:42 PM

I happen not to care about James Franco very much--even less so if he's writing poems about, of all exhausted subjects, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe--but I like everything that has happened on this page! Feel like there is great potential in reviews of the crowds at various lit events.

Ian Belknap / April 1, 2014 8:05 PM

Alex: thanks for a thoughtful response. You are of course correct about how relative such assessments are.

I actually wrote my show in a concerted effort to push past the "pfft, hate that guy," which, make no mistake, I do, but I wanted to respond directly to his work, such as it is.

I'm doing a last-ever one-night of the show this Thu 4/3 @ Steppenwolf Garage, if you're interested.

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