Although these days quizzical mentions of actor-turned-student-turned-writer-turned-artist James Francos name are frequently heard in art-world precincts, ARTINFO just recently discovered that the artist's multifarious productivity is an even more significant topic than previously thought. The epiphany came from Sam Anderson, book critic for New York magazine, whose cover story in the latest issue explores the nuances of Franco’s frenetic career. At great length. No: At extraordinary length.
The piece weighs in at seven times the word-count of Anderson’s reminiscence about David Foster Wallace on the occasion of the seminal author’s suicide. In fact, it is roughly the same length as "In Defense of Distraction,” the book critic's stem-winding manifesto about the impact of the Internet on the cultural consumption of an entire generation. The Franco story is nearly 300 words longer.
ARTINFO, therefore, decided to digest this tome of an ode on Franco — it's 6,499 words long in total — into something more suitable for easily distracted readers in the Internet age. In so doing, we discovered (spoiler alert!) the profile to be one of the biggest journalistic write-arounds since Gay Taleses “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” The piece might even be renamed, "James Franco Pees in Front of Me Once and Then Doesn’t Let Me Talk to Him Again," since, as Anderson reveals some thousands of words in, "Franco’s publicist has recently informed me that — after all these months of e-mailing (he always responds immediately, and likes to sign off with 'Peace') and brief conversations—Franco and I are no longer allowed to talk. He’s signed an exclusivity agreement with another magazine."
Here, before getting to our ten-item digest, let us pause to wonder: What kind of high-flown placement could have deep-sixed a New York magazine cover story that was already in progress. A Calvin Tomkins immortalization in the New Yorker? A treatise in October by Yves Alain Bois? A mash note in Tiger Beat by Justin Bieber? This question left unanswered, Anderson ultimately tells us not to worry about his level of remove from his subject. Of Franco he says: "In interviews he’s charming and affable but rarely says anything provocative. His work itself, his career choices, are more interesting than his words." So, it’s better this way.Now to commence with the digest. It may begin with the mundane, but like any of Franco’s stunts, it ends... oddly.
1. James Franco Is a Normal Guy: Who, according to Anderson, wears "a standard grad-student uniform: washed-out jeans, charcoal sweater, gray sneakers, messy hair," when he goes into an NYU bathroom and pees in front of the reporter. This is really the only thing Franco does in Anderson’s presence before the lines of communication are severed. But Franco’s just like you and me, and when he "desperately needs to urinate" after having recently consumed a lot of coffee, he "starts to urinate, matter-of-factly, into a urinal — a process that goes on for an extremely long time."
2. James Franco Controls His Own Facial Features: As any good actor should, no doubt. This talent is put to the test in the article when Franco winks. Anderson muses upon the wink (after all, it is the peak of the action in this article, the subsequent 5,000 words of which will be based on no physical contact with the subject) making it a metaphor for all that Franco has done or will do. So, Anderson torturously debates what kind of wink this wink was. "A cheesy Hollywood-schmoozer wink, meant to charm and titillate me — the equivalent of a personalized James Franco autograph on our conversation? Or was it sincere, a gesture of goodwill and openhearted, rakish, devil-may-care bonhomie? (Is a sincere wink even possible, here in the cinema-studies department at NYU, in the year 2010?) Was it ironic — a wink set in quotation marks? Was he making fun of me, and of himself, and of the whole vexed transaction of celebrity journalism? Was he flirting with me, or metaflirting — making a sly reference to all the gay rumors swirling around him, and to our strange homosocial trip to the bathroom together?" Maybe he had something in his eye. (Remember when that happened to George Costanza? Hilarity ensued!)
3. James Franco Makes Films: Which would come as no surprise — except he makes all films. "In the next year or so, he’ll be appearing in the films 'Eat, Pray, Love' (as Julia Robertss boyfriend), 'Howl' (as Allen Ginsberg), '127 Hours' (as the one-armed hiker), 'Your Highness' (a medieval comedy), 'William Vincent' (an indie film by one of his NYU professors), 'Maladies' (put out by his own production company), and 'Rise of the Apes' (a prequel to 'Planet of the Apes'). And of course there’s his epically weird stint on 'General Hospital' — the crown jewel in the current science project of his career.” To note: it was on one of these "General Hospital" episodes that the term Francophrenia was coined. It is an apt term.
4. James Franco Writes Literature: He has had stories published in Esquire and McSweeney’s, and he wrote a novel while studying at UCLA. He has also written an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which is potentially more of an intervention than infiltrating "General Hospital." Quite the Renaissance man, as we already knew, and an iconoclast.
5. James Franco is Collaborating with Artists: Specifically, with the filmmaker Carter, with John Kelly, with Marina Abramovic (at least to make some gilded chocolate), and with performance artist Kalup Linzy (although Anderson never mentions Linzy’s name in the profile, though he is also on "General Hospital").
5. James Franco Likes to Go to School: He likes to go to a seemingly inhuman number of schools — a school of schools. First, he enrolled at four simultaneously: "NYU for filmmaking, Columbia for fiction writing, Brooklyn College for fiction writing, and — just for good measure — a low-residency poetry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina." And then this fall tack on "Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design." No wonder he doesn't have time to talk to more than one magazine at once.
7. James Franco Doesn’t Eat, Sleep, or Act Human in Any Way: According to Anderson, the actor replaces REM cycles with "catnaps... sometimes even in the middle of a conversation." Also, Franco doesnt drink or smoke, but rather has "engineered his life so he can spend all his time either making or learning about art." He even hired his former classmate Dana Morgan to make sure his body remains alive while his brain pursues this goal: "He would not eat unless I fed him. He’ll do the hand-to-mouth part, but I definitely bring it to his hands."
8. James Franco’s Life is Not Best Understood Through His Wink, But Through Yale Scholar Michael Warner's Thesis on Sexuality (NB: Warner coined the word "heteronormative"): That's Anderson's finding, at least. As Warner has stated, "queer" is defined "against the normal rather than the sexual." An interesting standpoint for an artist. But Anderson suspects otherwise: "It is also possible that he’s just engaged in the world’s most public, and confused, coming-out process.... Given all of this, “James Franco’s girlfriend” would seem to be a fraught position." On top of the nonstop work schedule, resultant narcolepsy, and constant urination, you mean?
9. James Franco’s Gallery Show Is Really Weird: The exhibit at Clocktower Gallery, titled "The Dangerous Book Four Boys," includes a video juxtaposing "lurid monologues about rape and murder and diarrhea with close-up shots of a urinating penis and a defecating anus" while another (dubbed "Dicknose in Paris") shows Franco with a dildo on his nose, "complete with dangling testicles and a bush of pubic hair — hanging down from the middle of his face."
10. James Franco May or May Not Be Involved in Something Terrifying: At the end of the story, once it has made clear to Anderson that his contact with Franco has been cut off — though the by-now-incomprehensible subject says not by him — the author writes: "Franco slaps me on the shoulder. 'Don’t be scared,' he says. And he walks back out into the thickening crowd." Wait. That's like the plot twist at the end of "Inception." What is going on here?