Ambigu-Gus Van Sant – by James Franco
Gus Van Sant’s first film to be released in theaters was Mala Noche (1985), based on the memoir of the same title by Portland poet Walt Curtis. It depicts Walt as a gay convenience-store employee attracted to a Mexican migrant worker. His most recent film, Milk (2008), portrays the life of gay activist,politician,and martyr Harvey Milk. (I played Harvey’s partner, Scott Smith.) Van Sant has made 11 feature films and a dozen shorts and music videos between these two movies, but only one other feature and one short—My Own Private Idaho (1991) and his segment from Paris, Je T’Aime,“Le Marais,” (2006)—center on gay characters and themes. Despite this lack of explicitly gay-themed films, Van Sant is hailed as one of the foremost gay directors working today. Part of this reputation undoubtedly derives from a desire to claim his high quality and original films for the gay community simply because he is a gay filmmaker. But there is another side to Van Sant’s oeuvre that is neither gay nor straight but subversively queer in its ambiguity. Van Sant inserts this queer sensibility in both gay and straight narratives that then de-centers any clear kind of sexual identity for his work as a whole.
Van Sant’s films embrace both classic Hollywood archetypes and queer cinema styles,usually set in his hometown of Portland, to create a unique amalgamation of trashy-chic timelessness. His characters and themes undermine the notion of fixed identities, experiences, and themes. At his queer best, Van Sant usually is dealing with young people, and seems primarily interested in the young white male: his sexual desires, his talents, but primarily the social pressures upon him. Often his characters are freighted with heavy emotional, economic, or addiction burdens—but they hardly ever struggle with identity. The characters are relaxed about who they are because they are almost invariably cool. Van Sant’s aesthetic is confidently queer in its refusal to categorize, in its overarching hipness of look and subject matter that is both in your face and elusive.
Richard Prince, Roland Barthes, & Remythologizing the Myth of the Cowboy
Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. When he started appropriating images he was working at Time-Life in the tear-sheet department. “At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject.” He would rephotograph the advertisementsand then crop them to remove the text and most references to the cigarettes they were selling. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million. In 2007 he reset the record price for a photograph by selling “Untitled (Cowboy)” for $3,401,000 at an auction.
Richard’s use of Malboro men is a particularly unique situation because it reverses the usual direction of artistic appropriation. Where advertisements usually assimilate a range of cultural references, from high art to lowbrow humor, it wasn’t until Warhol that artists turned on advertising and began appropriating right back. Richard’s work is an extreme example of this appropriation, and thus a great locus for studying the art world’s re-mythologization of myth—a subject Roland Barthes famously deconstructed in his series essays on pop culture as modern-day myths, collected in Mythologies. Richard has expressed his contempt for Barthian analysis of his work—the notion that he is simply “stealing” from the ads and calling it “appropriation”—but this seems like a lowbrow stance against highbrow criticism as a defensive measure. It is not that Barthes shouldn’t be applied to his work; it is more like Richard is making a preemptive strike against such criticism because it could categorize his work very well.
Richard Kern on Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s ‘Hustlers’
To find subjects for his series Hustlers, Philip-Lorca diCorcia drove around Hollywood between 1990 and 1992 looking for male prostitutes. Although many of the photos look perfectly timed, off-the-hip candid photos of street hustlers, diCorcia pre-selected the locations and did lighting tests with an assistant before searching for a subject to put in each setting.
DiCorcia approached his subjects in LA’s “Boystown,” an area of West Hollywood where, in the 80s and 90s, a small fee would buy time with available young rent boys found hanging out on Santa Monica Boulevard. Instead of paying them for sex, he paid them to pose for a photo. The men he found came to LA from all OVER the country for a glamorous new life that they believed could be found in Hollywood. The titles of the photos included the subject’s name, age, hometown and the fee exchanged.
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Book Report: ‘Frankenstein’
Last fall, as I prepared for my first semester of full-time adjuncting in New York, I thought it would be a good idea to teach texts that I’d always meant to read but never had. Maybe Heart of Darkness or Great Expectations. (The Old Man and the Sea or Wurthering Heights?) And I could read along with my students. It was not a very good idea. I still have not read 100 percent ofHamlet, even though I taught it and graded papers on it—but I did manage to keep up withFrankenstein by Mary Shelley.
I chose this book for both a freshman-composition class for international students and, at another school, an introduction-to-literature class. It seemed like a great choice: canonized young woman novelist, probably a straightforward ethical message, weird gender inversions with male birth narrative.
Prior to teaching Frankenstein, my knowledge of the plot was cobbled together from loosely interpreting Tim Burton films, the moment from the 1931 film adaptation when Dr. Frankenstein screams, “It’s alive! It’s alive!,” and a 1998 Twix commercial.
'Macbeth' – The Book Report
The Book Report is a series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. Catch evenings of live, in-person Book Reports that will remind you of the third grade in the best possible way with hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher every month at The Gallery at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in New York. The next one is November 12.
OK right so first off there are these ladies hanging out in the woods over a trash-can fire with a cauldron and they are stirring it with probably brooms. Basically this is where the sign drops down saying “WITCHES” as a sort of stage direction to our lives. OK so there is this guy named DUNCAN and he is king of all the Scots. And OK so MACBETH is the main guy here because he gets first billing. And so the thing about MACBETH is that he killed some guys in a war and so that was good, and then he and his best buddy BANQUO get shit-housed and wander around the woods all shit-housed like a bunch of loud-ass drunk white dudes in positions of middle management obsessed and incensed with their own perceived lack of value, and they stumble across THESE THREE LADIES  and the THREE LADIES are all like, “O, yo, MACBETH we were just talkin about U,” and Macbeth is all, “Who me?” and the witches say, “Yes, U. U R gonna be king.” And Banquo is all, “What about me?” and they’re all, “U R gonna father a bunch of kings, but U ain’t gonna be one.” And the aformentioned dudes are all, “Whoa, this is so weird!” And the witches are all, “Poof, we vanished” because that is exactly what happened.
Spring Break: A Fever Dream, by James Franco
Image by Courtney Nicholas
Here’s the end of it all, and I’ll tell you why: because there will never be a movie or a character that is more important for this age than Spring Breakers and its protagonist Alien. As Harmony Korine’s friend Werner Herzog said to me on the phone call of all phone calls—I was out in North Carolina, sitting in a little Mexican restaurant called Cocula that I frequent on my lunch breaks from the low-residency writing MFA program at Warren Wilson College, just staring out the window that’s frosted over with a map of Mexico, at the dirty field across the roadway—when he told me that my performance in the film made De Niro in Taxi Driver look like a kindergartener, and that the film was the most important film of the decade. Imagine in a distinct German accent: “Three hundred years from now, when people want to look back at dis time, dey won’t go to the Obama inauguration speech, dey will go to Spring Breakers.”
I can’t even take credit for Alien. He is Harmony’s. As he says, Alien is a gangster mystic. A clown, a killer, a lover: the spirit of the age. Riff Raff wants to take credit for this creation, but that simplifies it. It is like Neal Cassady laying claim to Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, which isn’t a great comparison because Kerouac was transparently and literally writing about Neal. Alien undermines all. He’s a gangster who deep-throats automatic weapons as well as Linda Lovelace would. He’s the guru of the age. He’s what you would get if you got every damn material thing you ever wanted and then relished in the realization that you don’t have a use for any of it. So you make one up. “Bring it on, little bitches, come to me, little bitches… We didn’t create this sensitive monster, y’all did. Look at his shit, that’s what y’all are working fo yo’selves.”
The Lone Survivor Be, by Alien, James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers
What’s wit dem moovies that be wit them one person survivin’ in isolation? There be a slew of dem now, the one—at least dem contemporary one that stands out—be Tommy Hanks’sCastaway. It be about him on dem island wit Wilson, his ball, that take on dem personalities of a human, and we actually take Wilson to be a character, to the point we be actually sad when Wilson die—even tho muthafucka don’t even die, because he a fuckin’ volleyball!
It be like what dat dude, Scott McCloud say in How Comics Work, that we as humans put our likeness on any ol’ thing: clouds, flowers, animals, rocks, stick figures… volleyballs! Just find some eyes or a mouf and that shit has a human personality. But in that film Hanks had a whole island, that be the infinite space of Hamlet’s walnut shell compared to what the later muthafucks be puttin’ up wit: 127 Hours (muthafuck be stuck in a canyon,hand stuck in a rock! Makes Hanks’s island start lookin’ huuuge); some film with Ryan Reynolds in a trunk or sumptin, talkin’ on a cell phone (didn’t see it); Life of Pi (stuck in a raft, yeah dey waz a tiga, but he was probably imaginary—we gonna talk ’bout dat one later); Gravity(bitch be alone, big spectac backdrop—fuckin’ spaaaaace—but still alone as a ghos’); an’ now that Redford piece, All Is Lost (back in dat boat, wit no backstory! Mo’ bout dat later, too).
Them Sounds Is Furious
I Am Not from This Planet is a column where we give James Franco’s Florida-bred, gun-toting, big-bootie-loving pal Alien the floor to sound off on whatever he likes. For this inaugural edition, Alien breaks us off some knowledge with a review of William Faulkner’s literary classic, The Sound and the Fury.
William Faulkner one bad motherfucker when it come to putting them words on paper. Of all them books that boy put out, Sound and the Fury holds a special spot in my heart—kinda like my first piece of ass. I was just a little boy, like 16 or something when I first read it and it stuck with me to this day.
The Sound and the Fury was William’s fourth book, and it has a stream of consciousness flow that be like one of my fly-ass freestyles. It reads like the boy just wrote that shit straight off the top of the head. The vibe has a lot to do with the South, which I can relate to since I come straight outta country-ass motherfucking St. Petersburg, Florida. This book airs out the dirty drawers of the South by following the breakdown of the Compsons, a family of rich-ass crackers, after the Civil War. The Compsons do all types of shady shit and end up losing all their power and their paper.
Jake Gyllenhaal Is the Perfect Gumshoe in Prisoners, Says James Franco
Prisoners is awesome. I loved, loved, loved it. The atmosphere, the pacing, the framing, the acting, and the subject matter are all so good. I love that my man Jake Gyllenhaal is back as a hard-hitting actor. His portrayl of Detective Loki is mysterious, empathetic, tough, and believable—all without a backstory. All we know about Loki is that he spends Thanksgiving alone at a Chinese restaurant and that he has never foiled a case. He is the perfect engine for this contemporary noir where each turn (well, almost each turn) in the narrative is believable and gripping. But more than that, he embodies the “complex simplicity” that Thoreau speaks of. He tells little with words but tells so much with presence and clues. Clock my man’s crazy tattoos and the erratic blinking he does whenever he is thinking hard about something. Scope his shirts buttoned esse-style, all the way to the top. These are the signals of a confident and searching actor and they signify to viewers that Detective Loki is a force to be reckoned with in his world. Even though Loki has a shadowy backstory, these little clues are all we need to fall in love with him.
And just in case it isn’t clear: I LOVE this film. It is so dense with atmosphere and full of questions about who we are and what we believe in. It is so rich that it feels like a novel. I kept asking myself as I watched it: How did the screenwriter and director jump straight past conventional literature and create literature for the screen? Maybe someone will just have to do a book adaptation of this film. It’s that good.
Because it is so good, I want to ruminate on some things I found troubling. Think of this pondering as coming from your friend whom you saw the film with; you’re both in the car together on the way home and you’re just discussing what you liked and didn’t like about the film. It isn’t straight criticism, but rather a little detective work on the detective film itself.