Later this year, Hollywood superstar James Franco will come out with a new film whose animating concept is so confusing it takes an entire article to explain and contextualize it.
Here’s what happened: a few years ago, Franco listened to some songs by The Smiths to help him write poems that he later compiled into a poetry collection entitled Directing Herbert White. He then turned those Smiths-influenced poems back into Smiths- and poetry-influenced songs. He then gave those songs to high school students in Palo Alto and asked them to translate the songs into a third creative genre—cinematic screenplay—and based on the resulting screenplays, he and his band Daddy (yes, he has a band) wrote an album’s worth of new Smiths-, poetry-, and screenplay-inspired songs. The student screenplays have now been produced, and, with the aid of songs by Daddy, comprise a film called Let Me Get What I Want.
You can watch the first music video to emerge from this project here .
The upshot here is that Franco has engineered a compositional process that mirrors the way culture moves in the Internet Age: from one genre to another, with each successive genre translating (and also mistranslating) the same source material in its own way. The best part is that not only is Franco letting us see the results at each stage in the process, but his “final” product—a film and its accompanying soundtrack—offers us both listenable music and watchable film, making it not only a suitably complex concept-driven artwork but also a likely entertaining one. If avant-garde literary artists and filmmakers are pissed at Franco, as they usually and currently are, they have a right to be—but only because Franco has a (to them) unimaginable budget, not because the ideas Franco is working with are subpar. They’re not subpar; frankly, they’re pretty great. It’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s not a difficult position to defend. If the late novelist David Foster Wallace once criticized the American postmodernism of the 1980s and 1990s as “hellaciously un-fun,” and in doing so prophesied the imminent demise of postmodernism (and its poster-child irony) as a generative cultural paradigm, young artists like Franco have taken the hint and begun producing avant-garde art that’s at once cerebral and a visceral delight.
In lauding Franco as I do here, don’t misunderstand me: plenty of writers and filmmakers are coming up with ideas just as good as Franco’s, they’re just not coming up with as many of them all at once, and in so many different genres, and all while living a life in the public eye that’s equal parts “hounded celebrity” and “pariah for every disappointed artiste-cum-barista from Seattle to D.C.” Those who hate Franco’s art, and the (to them) obscure motivations that drive its production in such copious volume, are the sort of artists who have always hated those who step outside anticipated roles. These artists often find ways to double down on the status quo without seeming to be doing so—they maintain their bohemian street cred even as they strangle in its crib any audacious innovations in art. In the end, though, Franco’s critics are profoundly misunderstanding what they’re critiquing. They believe themselves superior to Franco as artists if they can (variously) write a better screenplay than Franco, write a better poem than Franco, and so on—when in fact Franco’s creative persona has nothing to do with quality per se, and everything to do with the new byword in the arts: interdisciplinarity.
Franco masterfully coordinates multiple genres, discrete disciplines, and disparate resources in a way the rest of us can’t, not only because we’re poorer but because, generally, we’re not as smart or creative as Franco is within his own context—that context being a life of limitless resources, staggering visibility, and a restlessness that many celebrities deal with through moral sloth or gestural charity work. While it’s true that much of Franco’s smarts and creativity are attributable to him being wealthy and famous enough to know and collaborate with some very smart and talented people, even here we must say that the ability to aggregate talent is both rare generally and vanishingly rare among the Hollywood elite—even as it’s perhaps the most critical skill an artist can possess in our present age of collaboration and intertextuality. Postmodern dialectics have given way to metamodern dialogue, and Franco knows it.
In other words, given his local and cultural contexts, Franco is, conceptually speaking, hitting the ball out of the ballpark nine times out of ten. His projects, both Let Me Get What I Want and its immediate predecessors, are conceptually astute even when (sometimes particularly when) they fail as individual artworks. Is Directing Herbert White a particularly good book of poetry? No. Is it any good at all? Not really, at least if we judge it using conventional standards of craft, form, and imagination. But the concept behind the book, that being to have a famous person unabashedly write earnest poems about what a celebrity’s life is like—which, judging from American culture, is all anyone wants to know about celebrities anyway—is ingenious in its way. We didn’t get that kind of fan service from Jewel, or Billy Corgan, or Leonard Nimoy, or any of the other Hollywood darlings who’ve decided to try their hand at poetry. Franco writes poems entirely responsive to who he is to us as well as who he is to himself, and in making that difficult and perhaps unintentionally selfless decision he’s exhibited a sensitivity to context which, surprisingly, even today’s most multi-generic artists seem to lack. Indeed, American poetry—by way of example—has repeatedly made national headlines over the past couple years for its brazen commitment to giving exactly no one in America what they want, for doing almost nothing to write verse that reflects the culture in which it’s being written, and meanwhile—on top of that—for arguing loudly about how it’s preposterous to expect it to do otherwise. Franco has made a different decision, and in the context of his cross-generic career it’s clear that that decision was motivated by the actor’s artistic vision rather than financial gain. Franco doesn’t need the cash, after all.
It’s time for the Franco hate to stop. Viewed at the level of a career rather than on the level of individual artworks, Franco is Hollywood’s most interesting, daring, and multi-faceted artist. Hating on him is not only easy to do but also easy to justify as coming from a protective instinct—that is, the idea that the arts must be protected from the intrusion of dilettantes like Franco. In fact, the anti-Franco madness is as retrograde, conservative, and reactionary as any inclination we find in the arts today. It says that not only should we all stay within our generic and subcultural boxes, but that delivering anticipated results is always preferable to displaying uncommon (even if only intermittently winning) daring. In fact, the reverse is true, a premise for which Franco is the poster-child. In light of the age we live in, and the explorations of genre and how artists live and interconnect that should be happening right now across all genres, the truth is that James Franco is as intelligent and creative as any of his peers, and perhaps much more so.
Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA, forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.