A considered critique of James Franco’s Interpretive Ode to ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ at MOCA
I was looking forward to casting a judicious critical eye upon the indefatigable James Franco’s multi-media ode to ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, currently occupying a wing of MOCA, but I’m much busier than I prefer to be at present. Quite unexpectedly and undeservedly, a show at a prominent gallery fell into my lap – at the Rosamund Felsen gallery (the opening is on July 7th) – which creates a lot of pressure. Instead of capitalizing on the modest success of my last solo gallery show I have spent the last year and a half pissing around with various dubious literary endeavors, most of which are unlikely to ever see the light of day and which possess no remunerative potential whatsoever. Now I find myself in the position of having to produce new work, a lot of it, in a short period of time. My imagination dried up long ago and I possess very little technical skill. As an artist, if I might be so bold as to call myself that, I’m not used to deadlines. If my work can be said to possess quality, it can largely be attributed to the relaxed atmosphere in which it was created. I don’t work well under pressure… or without it. Consequently there is going to be a certain amount of duplication with the last show, for which I apologize in advance; although there will be a lot of new scratchy little ink drawings of vernacular architecture and industrial scenes on display.
I abhor the practice of self-referential criticism and would never cheapen myself by using a magazine article to promote my own work, but I also have a new book coming out: ‘Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment’. An epithalamia is a classical poem celebrating a marriage. These are antiepithalamia: mean-spirited love poems. It’s a horrible book really: a morbid, mean-spirited, self-pitying work. Its rebarbative contents might offend the humorless and the narrow-minded, among others. The venerable dictum that the role of literature should ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ is adhered to. Towards this end, the collection is generously and painfully offered as a tonic to those among us who are not blissfully content in love and work, and as a bracing antidote to the bombardment of unconvincing positivity that vulgarizes almost every avenue of contemporary culture, including poetry. I feel somewhat uneasy about unloading it upon the public, not that the public is likely to pay much attention, but by those who do I will probably be branded as a misogynist and a misanthrope. There are parts of it that make me queasy and that will probably make others queasy. Most of the poems are quite old, and I don’t feel close to them anymore, but out of fidelity to the original sentiments, and because there’s some vague possibility that others might find solace and amusement in these bitter words, I haven’t done much revision. It would have been preferable had this work been published four or five years ago, when most of it was written, but it’s good to finally get it out of my system and – if anybody reads it – into the systems of others. I feel naked, but it doesn’t matter: Nobody’s looking.
So, unfortunately, I don’t have time to analyze James Franco’s ‘interpretive ode’ to his doppelanger, James Dean. Why expend the valuable time and energy needed for my own work on somebody who doesn’t need any more attention but will receive it anyway, thanks to his tireless contributions to almost every field of the arts?
I have nothing against James Franco. I don’t know much about him. I enjoyed his work on ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ although he was probably the least endearing member of that charming cast; and I know that he has subsequently forged a career for himself as some sort of insufferably ubiquitous overachiever. Like a dog that insists on shaking a few drops of piss on every tree it passes, Franco must leave his mark on every medium. Actor, author, artist: He can do it all, apparently. Maybe he is talented, but he doesn’t have to be such a grandstander about it. What is he trying to hide by revealing himself so much, what is he overcompensating for? A little less confidence and a little more false modesty, in this case, wouldn’t hurt. It’s not as if the world is crying out for his – or anyone else’s – interpretation of such a familiar classic, but ‘artists’ love to reference canonical works: it gives their own work relevance.
Another thing I’ve noticed about James Franco is that such is his confidence in his mastery of the English language that he didn’t bother to check a word he clearly didn’t know the meaning of when a piece of his prose was included in a recent compendium of drug literature. The word was ‘parse,’ and he obviously meant ‘parcel.’ A common enough mistake. I know he’s a busy man, but it would only have taken ten seconds to look it up. He also insisted on having his contribution printed on special paper in the center of the book, thereby separating and elevating himself from the other writers, all of whom are more experienced writers and drug-takers than he is.
In today’s media-driven society it seems to be ridiculously easy for successful actors to ride the confidence and adoration gained from their movie careers into other areas of the arts as a sort of narcissistic extension of their fame, and make an immediate impact without having to pay their dues. The guardians of the art world are only too happy to accomodate them. After all, this is LA, and everybody loves a celebrity – especially at MOCA, with the star-struck Jeffrey Deitch at the helm. Even the most serious artists are not impervious to their charms; many of the biggest names in town have rallied around Franco in support of his ‘Cause.’ – Ruscha, McCarthy, Harmony Korine. “It’s all about cross-pollination,” as Franco has pointed out. Although it does seem to be a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine, back in the pre-Warholian ‘Rebel’ days of the 50’s, James Dean being invited to organize an art show with the painters of his day, and his contemporaries – Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, etc – being so easily courted by a movie star.
Nobody will ever refer to Franco as an artist or a writer; he will always be known as an actor. Perhaps this galls him. As an actor friend once explained to me, acting is just showing off in public, but not everybody can do it (which, I guess, one could say about almost everything). Now that I come to think of it, I wish I had followed Franco’s arc and piggybacked an acting career into the realm of art. It’s so much more convenient and less time-consuming than spending years honing one’s craft and inuring oneself to the bitter taste of rejection. I only wish I’d thought of it earlier. It’s too late now, of course – although, come to think of it, I do have SAG credentials.
Artillery July 2012