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The Berlinale Blog: Francomania?

The most ubiquitous actor alive wasn't going to give the Berlinale a miss. Giovanni Marchini Camia checks out two of James Franco's three Panorama films, finding little to validate his rampant self-aggrandizement.

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Over the last few years James Franco has been working mighty hard at cultivating a reputation as Hollywood’s most versatile, prolific and intellectual artist. However, his forays beyond mainstream cinema – be they arthouse films, short stories, paintings or excruciatingly awful and shamelessly self-enamoured ‘poems’ – have at best proven underwhelming and the two vanity projects screening in this year’s Panorama section are no deviation from this trend.

The first is Maladies written and directed by Carter, whose previous film was Erased James Franco, in which the actor re-enacted every one of his screen performances to date. In Maladies Franco stars as James, a former actor turned writer in the grips of writer’s block and hazily described mental/existential problems and living in a bohemian household with his best friend and fellow artist Catherine (Catherine Keener) as well as his sister Patricia (Fallon Goodson). Despite appealing production values and solid performances, the film tries too hard for an endearing quirkiness à la Wes Anderson, sacrificing character and narrative depth in favour of excessive and tiresome mannerism. This is apparent from the start, with the opening scene showing James interact with the voice-over narration followed by a fast-paced, cheerfully narrated montage that introduces the characters and general plot in the style of a trailer for the upcoming film. The rest is made up of a series of scenes that work more like eccentric vignettes, portraying James’ escalating mental degradation as he struggles to finish his book and escape the demons of his forsaken acting career, eventually culminating in his martyrdom in the name of art.

As grating as Carter’s continued adulation of Franco may be, it is nothing compared to Franco’s own in Interior. Leather Bar, which he co-directed with Travis Mathews. The film’s premise is to recreate some 40 minutes of lost footage that was deemed too explicit to be included in the final cut of William Friedkin’s Cruising, which even in its more moderate version caused a massive uproar when it came out in 1980 because of its portrayal of New York’s underground gay S/M scene. The point of this exercise, as Franco tells the camera without the least trace of irony, is to finally explode the notion of taboo in art: society’s heteronormative values are all-pervasive and he is “sick of that shit!” – it is time that real sex was included in films, just like violence is. Nevermind the massive catalogue of films (or art, for that matter…) ignored in this platitude, the film offers absolutely nothing new to this most enduring of discourses.

Only three recreated scenes are shown and these don’t add up to ten minutes of screen time, which is just as well, as they’re pretty much just close-ups of erections and blow-jobs – not exactly making a point beyond grossing out the squeamish. The remainder of the film is essentially a Franco appreciation party scantly disguised as a “Making Of” documentary. A lot of emphasis is lain on how radical Franco is for engaging in this risky yet enlightened venture despite concurrently acting in a Disney film, complemented by scenes such as the extras sharing their reasons for participating in the project, which range from collaborating with Franco, to making out with Franco, to seeing Franco naked. Many will have been disappointed as the man himself did not care to step in front of the camera for the re-enactments, though he was very intent on stressing how uncomfortable his main actor, who is straight, felt at sitting amongst lot of guys blowing one another – thesis confirmed, taboo exploded: a straight man did not enjoy acting in a gay porno (package it as you want, but if all you film is people fucking, it’s porn).